Col­lege foot­ball’s most-hated rule here to stay

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - WEATHER REPORT -

In th­ese times when so much di­vides Amer­i­cans, the tar­get­ing penalty brings col­lege foot­ball fans to­gether.

Just about all of them hate it.

The tar­get­ing foul turns 10 this sea­son, though the real rage against it did not start un­til 2013 when player ejec­tions be­came part of the penalty. The rule re­mains un­changed de­spite an off­sea­son dis­cus­sion of whether to elim­i­nate ejec­tions for cer­tain in­frac­tions, and the ef­fort to pro­tect play­ers is spread­ing: The NFL com­pe­ti­tion com­mit­tee ear­lier this year ap­proved au­to­matic ejec­tions for egre­gious hits to the head.

Tar­get­ing can be a dif­fi­cult call for of­fi­cials, a split-sec­ond eval­u­a­tion of a high­speed col­li­sion. The 15-yard penalty that comes with it can dras­ti­cally swing a game and los­ing a player to an ejec­tion is a dra­matic step. It does re­main a rel­a­tively rare call. Even last year, when tar­get­ing fouls reached new highs in to­tal (144) and per game (0.17), the num­ber still amounted to only one ev­ery 5.83 FBS games played.

For many in­volved with col­lege foot­ball, this seems a small price to pay to at­tempt to make the game safer — es­pe­cially as stud­ies on the toll foot­ball takes on the body and brain con­tinue to yield wor­ri­some re­sults.

While it is im­pos­si­ble to quan­tify whether eject­ing play­ers has led to a de­crease in the rate and num­ber of head and neck in­juries, those who play a part in shap­ing col­lege foot­ball's rules say they can see a dif­fer­ence in the way the game is be­ing played.

"We can see clear changes in be­hav­ior of the play­ers," said Rogers Red­ding, the na­tional co­or­di­na­tor of of­fi­cials. "By that I mean, we see less of play­ers just launch­ing them­selves like a mis­sile at a guy's head. We still see it some­times, but you also see a lot of times when they're com­ing in lower. They're get­ting their heads out of the way. They're mak­ing con­tact at the chest or in the side, not go­ing high."

An­other tell­tale sign: Danger­ous hits that in the past would pro­duce high-fives and chest-bumps by play­ers now are no longer cause for cel­e­bra­tion.

"Now what you'll see is, you'll see a player make a hit like this and one of the early re­ac­tions is he'll grab his hel­met and say, 'Oh, my good­ness what have I done,'" Red­ding said.

Tar­get­ing is not just about try­ing to cur­tail con­cus­sions. What has been lost in the con­stant fo­cus on con­cus­sions in foot­ball is that the tar­get­ing rule was put in place as a re­sponse to re­search that showed the num­ber of cat­a­strophic head, neck, spine and brain in­juries at all lev­els of foot­ball spiked in the 2000s.

Ron Cour­son, the head ath­letic trainer and di­rec­tor of sports medicine at the Uni­ver­sity of Ge­or­gia, was part of the push to add the tar­get­ing per­sonal foul back in 2008. Cour­son said stud­ies have shown that when cat­a­strophic in­juries hap­pen in foot­ball it is usu­ally the player do­ing the strik­ing with the crown of the hel­met who sus­tains the in­jury.

The tar­get­ing rule is as much about pro­tect­ing the player de­liv­er­ing the hit as the one tak­ing it, Cour­son said. He said tack­ling now is more about the "big hits" than try­ing to "wrap up" a player, and there are other fac­tors, too.

"They are faster and they are stronger and that leads to more vi­o­lent col­li­sions," Cour­son said.

Since 2013, when the au­to­matic ejec­tion was added, all tar­get­ing calls are sub­ject to video re­view and can be over­turned. Last sea­son, re­play of­fi­cials were given the dis­cre­tion to call ob­vi­ous tar­get­ing fouls that were missed by field of­fi­cials. There were 28 tar­get­ing fouls called in FBS last sea­son by re­play of­fi­cials.

Red­ding said he be­lieves the rea­son tar­get­ing fouls have in­creased from 0.04 per game in 2013 to 0.17 last year is be­cause of­fi­cials have be­come more com­fort­able with mak­ing the call.

Todd Berry, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Amer­i­can Foot­ball Coaches As­so­ci­a­tion, said coaches are adapt­ing and em­pha­siz­ing tack­ling tech­niques that help avoid tar­get­ing. Still, there is frus­tra­tion when play­ers are flagged for hits that seemed im­pos­si­ble to avoid.

"We ap­plaud the na­ture of why we're do­ing this," Berry said. "And we want to do ev­ery­thing we can to help and re­solve this, but we also need to kind of rec­og­nize: Are we ask­ing the kids to do some­thing phys­i­cally that they're not ca­pa­ble of do­ing?"

Dur­ing the off­sea­son, of­fi­cials de­cided the oc­ca­sional hard-luck foul that leads to a player get­ting ejected was not enough rea­son to mod­ify a rule de­signed to take danger­ous hits out of the game. The penalty is puni­tive, but nec­es­sary if chang­ing be­hav­ior is go­ing to con­tinue, said Big 12 Com­mis­sioner Bob Bowlsby, who also heads the foot­ball over­sight com­mit­tee.

"As much as some peo­ple don't like it, it's mak­ing the game safer," Bowlsby said. "I don't be­lieve it's sis­si­fied the game. I don't think it's di­min­ished the qual­ity of play. I think it's made the game safer."

... Last year, when tar­get­ing fouls reached new highs in to­tal (144) and per game (0.17), the num­ber still amounted to only one ev­ery 5.83 FBS games played.

File Photo/AP

Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn (right) looks on as train­ers at­tend to line­backer Dar­rell Wil­liams (bot­tom) while Alabama A&M head coach James Spady (cen­ter, back) re­acts to a tar­get­ing call Nov. 19, 2016, dur­ing a col­lege foot­ball game in Auburn, Ala.

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