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Ejection for targeting in football is a rather severe punishment

Crunch Time


October 12, 2017

At first, this column was going to focus on what’s wrong with the NCAA’s targeting rule, enacted in 2008 to try and curtail escalating incidents of concussions and head and neck injuries that sidelined football players and in several instances ended their careers, severely.

There are some things that could be done to make the rule more fair, more in a moment. But by and large, the rule seems to be working, drawing the attention of coaches and players to practicing and emphasizing better, safer, tackling techniques.

When I played football back in Revolutionary War times, tackling was about leading with the forehead/facemask portion of the helmet. The tackler approached as low as possible, striking the ball carrier hopefully in the torso area with the helmet, then lifting, wrapping the arms around the runner and theoretically putting him on his back.

That changed in the late 1970s, early 1980s. NFL players like Jack “The Call Me Assassin” Tatum of the Oakland Raiders sought to inflict pain on their opponent, launching their bodies and leading with the helmet in the attempt to knock the player down rather than bring them down.

As this practice accelerated, fueled somewhat by the roar of the crowd (when in Rome...) who enjoyed the spectacle of seeing a player running one way suddenly stopped and then going the opposite direction by a flying defender. Injuries mounted, and something had to be done for player safety.

Enter the targeting penalty. The NCAA rule book defines this as forcible contact with the crown of the helmet and forcible contact to the head or neck of a defenseless player, and it is prohibited.

While well intended, it’s application has been varied and inconsistent, with a penalty that leaves no room for the accidental hit. A player charged with targeting is ejected from the game, and if the foul occurred in the second half, he must sit out the first half of the next game.

Players and coaches have raised complaints about the rule’s enforcement. Washington State University head coach Mike Leach calls it “micromanaging, for lack of a better word” and Stanford head coach David Shaw echoed others’ sentiments when he said there should be different levels of targeting with penalties corresponding to the severity of the infraction.

He should know. In the Cardinal’s game earlier this season with Pac-12 rival UCLA, two of Shaw’s players were ejected for targeting, while the Bruins had one dismissed. Replay showed two of those calls suspect of violating the rule, with the offensive player’s motions a likely contributor to the head-on contact.

It’s difficult to see things on the radio (pun intended) but during last Saturday’s Eastern Washington-University of California-Davis game, two Eagles and one Aggie player were flagged with targeting. Like I said, I couldn’t see, my speakers don’t have that kind of clarity, but judging by the comments of Eagles’ play-by-play legend Larry Weir and color-guy Paul Sorenson, all three were horrible calls.

Fortunately, and this is a good part of the rule, all three were reviewed and overturned by the replay official, who not only has the power to do this, but also to review and determine that a targeting call is warranted.

I’m OK with both scenarios because replay can slow down what is a tremendously fast game that makes calling penalties in real time a challenge. If you don’t know how fast college football can be, try to hit up EWU sports information director Dave Cook for a sideline pass.

And get one for me too.

But I agree with Shaw and others. Not all instances of targeting are truly severe, but should be penalized. Penalties are one of the best ways to get players to, theoretically “not do that again, knucklehead.”

If a player truly targets to hurt an opponent, offensively or defensively, he should be gone. But if it’s accidental, send a message that’s not so final that he needs to pay better attention to what’s going on.

John McCallum can be reached at


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