Despite consistent criticism over targeting enforcement, college football has limited paths forward

CBS Sports

November 11, 2021

On an average prime-time Saturday night telecast, the game continues to be the star. TV ratings for college football are up across the board in 2021. We cannot turn away from the nation’s No. 2 most-watched sport.

Targeting, though, might be the uninvited guest to one hell of a televised party.

Week after week, analysts inevitably climb a soapbox to scream at the moon. That is, to rail against the targeting rule: how it’s applied, why it’s applied, and how it is ruining the game and football careers of young adults. That’s all assuming those analysts — in fact, all targeting critics — know what they’re talking about.

“That’s the argument you get from ADs, ‘This kid worked his tail off,'” said Steve Shaw, national officiating supervisor and secretary-editor of the NCAA rules committee. “‘He only gets 12 playing opportunities, and you’re going to take half a game away from him [by ejecting him]. It’s not right.””

While the critics bleat, little is said in the moment about the victims of those hits. That’s why the 13-year-old targeting rule is there in the first place, to address the ongoing concern regarding head trauma.

But criticizing targeting has become a media sideshow echoing across current amplified landscape. Those who scream the loudest get their point across.

It just doesn’t mean they’re right.

Away from those primetime lights, battle lines are being drawn. On one side are those who believe the targeting rule must at least be adjusted. The other side is worried about going too far. The middle ground is littered with the possibility of lawsuits, concussions, recriminations and no clear way to proceed.

“This is a fight for our game,” Shaw said. “If we just walk away, that would be the wrong answer. The commissioners [who oversee the game] are not going to let us do that. The question is: Can you create a penalty structure that keeps the same impact as the penalty now?”

The answer will be determined in the next few months. While the targeting rule will be addressed by Shaw’s committee this offseason as a matter of course, any change will be highly scrutinized considering what’s at stake.

“I don’t want to sound overly dramatic,” Shaw reiterated, “but the future of football is in this discussion.”

That’s because any targeting change that is perceived as less restrictive will be raw meat for lawyers. The rule was instituted in 2008 as a reaction to increasing concern about head and neck injuries. While head trauma may have faded from view and become less compelling to the average fan, it remains a chief concern of athletic and NCAA medical interests.

When the NCAA’s chief medical officer, Brian Hainline, was asked to comment on the targeting penalty, he declined.

“The NCAA loses almost all P.R. battles anyway,” said Stanford coach David Shaw, who was not specifically referring to Hainline. “Let’s not lose the health and safety P.R. battle. If the worst-case scenario is we err on the side of protecting players, we’ll take that.”

One legal source told CBS Sports there are least 20 single-plaintiff cases challenging any combination of the NCAA, schools and conferences. The number of existing class-action cases are in the “hundreds”, according to that source.

“I think everybody has forgotten about it because there’s NIL,” Steve Shaw said. “There’s the transfer portal, there’s student-athlete voice, there’s conference realignment, there’s [College Football Playoff] expansion. … Everybody has quit talking about concussion litigation.”

In 2013, the NCAA settled a class-action head trauma suit for $75 million. A large portion of that money was targeted for research and screening of former and current players. However, it doesn’t pay for treatment. That didn’t end the legal challenges. As late as August, two former Purdue players from the 1990s filed a class-action lawsuit against the Big Ten and NCAA that would seek plaintiffs from as far back as 1952.

Any backtracking on targeting could be a disaster for an already-diminished NCAA and its member schools.

“No doubt, you can’t put in safety rules and then take them away without people like me getting in your kitchen,” said Houston-based attorney Eugene Egdorf, who has led some of the highest-profile head trauma cases against the NCAA.  “Make the rules better but making it less important, I would argue, [is not good].”

At issue for critics is not only the subjective nature of the targeting call itself but the result. At worst, a team gets a 15-yard penalty and the offending player is ejected after the penalty is confirmed by replay. The player misses the remainder of the game if the penalty occurs in the first half. If it occurs in the second half, the player misses the rest of the game and the first half of the next game.

A player is suspended for a full game separate from the one in which he’s playing after three targeting calls in a season. So far this season, five FBS players have been hit with two targeting fouls. In the shortened 2020 season, two players had three targeting fouls. Another seven had two.

The issue is grinding on the stewards of the game on multiple fronts. The numbers show that targeting rules have indeed changed on-field behavior. There are less targeting penalties. The game is seemingly safer. Nevertheless, the American Football Coaches Association supports a rule change that would resemble the flagrant foul call in basketball.

Targeting 1 would be a 15-yard penalty. Targeting 2 would be applied for malicious hits and result in for ejection.

Steve Shaw already has concerns. Heaping the decision between Targeting 1 and 2 on officials adds another complicated, subjective layer to an already complicated job. Then there is human nature.

Here’s how Shaw predicted a two-level targeting system would work: “This is what you will see. Officials don’t want to disqualify players. We’re all human and we have learned responses. … It’s not going to take long, as an official, to think, ‘You know what? If I put my flag away and just penalize this guy 15 yards, life is easier, my grade is better. Fans won’t attack me.’ That’s going to be the learned response.”

For three years, AFCA coaches have unanimously supported two levels of targeting. But even that proposal doesn’t remove that subjective nature of the game’s most controversial rule. The latest definition of targeting calls for a series of “indicators” for officials to judge in real time before throwing a flag. The replay official confirms from the booth any targeting call.

That AFCA proposal remains a significant talking point. The NCAA rules committee will meet early next year. Any change could come by early summer.

“We’re not against targeting,” Berry said. “What we’re against is the fact that a young person is [sometimes unfairly] disqualified from the game. These plays tend to be very quick and happen very fast. … We’ve reached that critical mass.”

Changes being explored by the rules committee include an offending player having to sit out equally as long as a player injured by targeting. But the committee is already aware of the possibility of a star defender being “set up” by an opposing team. The thinking being, if that backup goes into the medical tent, that’s a competitive advantage to eliminate a star player on the other side.

That smacks of a form of flopping that is already distressing the game’s leaders.

“I’m not going to tell you have the answer yet,” Shaw said. “I think the rules committee will look at ways to modify the penalty without losing the impact of player safety and behavior.”

He added: “We can’t have anything that immediately looks like, ‘Football said, ‘We’re OK with targeting.’ Anything backtracking is not only not good for the game … certainly some of these plaintiff lawyers would love that. They would want to show a pattern of behavior that the NCAA really does not respect player health and safety.”

As mentioned, the targeting rule has changed behavior. Statistics obtained by CBS Sports back up the assertion that targeting has reduced those massive hits. Through Week 10 of the 2021 season, the number of targeting fouls enforced was 140. That’s the lowest figure since 2015 (120).

So far this season, there is an average of only 0.22 targeting fouls enforced per game. That’s one every 4.5 games, an improvement of 22% over the COVID-19-impacted 2020 season when there was one every 3.70 games.

“Fans think there’s one in every game, and there’s just not,” Shaw said.

To this point, 41% of the targeting calls have been initiated by the replay booth, taking the decision out of officials’ hands. That’s the highest rate since replay was allowed in the process to create a targeting foul in 2016. To some, this is proof that the entire system is working.

“Absolutely it has worked,” said David Shaw, also an AFCA board of trustees member. “When you emphasize something, that’s when you get more calls. … [That message] now goes into the offseason. It goes into spring football and training camps. Coaches are changing what they’re teaching.”

David Shaw said a sign of progress is ejected players no longer having to take “the walk of shame” to the locker room. They are allowed to stay on the sidelines with their teammates.

Retired college official Mike Defee agreed that targeting penalties have changed behavior.

“I know it has worked,” he said. “Players have done a much better job for the most part avoiding those hits. It’s like making an omelet. You have to break a few eggs. We’re never going to be perfect, but we are working hard to preserve the [mental] faculties of these players.”

The targeting penalty was instituted in 2008. Numbers weren’t tracked until 2011. The rule has been modified three times since 2013 when ejection was implemented.

“That’s when you saw an enlightenment,” Steve Shaw said.

The revelation basically came from the 2012 SEC Championship Game. In the first half of that Alabama victory, Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray threw an interception. As the ball was being returned, Bama nose tackle Quinton Dial blind-sided Murray. No penalty was called.

“He knocked my block off, that’s for sure,” Murray said. “There’s some great pictures of it, too. I [saw] him about to hit me, literally, at the last millisecond. You see my body facing one way and my eyes are looking to my right like, ‘Oh my God, I’m about to die.'”

Murray didn’t suffer a concussion, but he couldn’t catch his breath for a large majority of halftime. There was immediate outcry with Alabama headed to the BCS Championship Game that Dial be suspended. There was no public announcement of Dial being disciplined.

In the offseason, former SEC commissioner Mike Slive and former Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany — the sport’s two most powerful figures – met, beginning momentum for the targeting ejection rule.

Steve Shaw loves to tell the story of former Ole Miss safety Trae Elston. In a 2012 game, Elston famously lined up a UTEP wide receiver coming into his territory for a big hit that knocked out the player. Elston chest bumped his teammates in celebration.

That was the last year before targeting ejections. After a similar play in 2013, flags came flying in after an Elston hit laid out another receiver. Elston immediately put his hands on top of his helmet in shame.

“If there is not a penalty, why would anybody change their behavior,” Egdorf asked rhetorically. “We don’t want the 1987 Miami Hurricanes’ let’s-go-take-everybody’s-head-off mentality.”

Targeting has heaped a lot more responsibility on officials. There was already the bang-bang nature of the game. Then add the judgements regarding what constitutes a defenseless player, lowering the head, indicators for targeting, etc. Because of all that, it is difficult to track statistics year over year since there is no consistent control group.

Like the block/charge call in basketball, targeting has become one of the most contentious officiating calls in sports. Adding to the debate, the NFL doesn’t eject players for targeting. Instead, the league issues fines.

“It’s impossible to get out of the game, so I don’t think kids should [necessarily] be thrown out of the game,” Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell said. “You don’t need to have the highlight knockout. You can do better. The NFL doesn’t throw people out. They fine them. I guess maybe we could fine college players now that they have NIL.”

Reflecting those Saturday night prime time shamefests, maybe too much is being made out of all this. Officials make mistakes. As long as players are protected, maybe it’s better to leave it all alone.

“The game is better off if we err on the side of safety,” Steve Shaw said. “If that means a player here or there gets disqualified that maybe shouldn’t be, [that’s ultimately] for the greater good.

“But that doesn’t translate well if you’re that player.”

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