College football’s NCAA targeting rule: Busting 4 myths about it

In college football, these things are targeting fouls, per the NCAA’s rulebook:

  1. Making “forcible contact against an opponent with the helmet crown,” or the top of the tackler’s head.
  2. Making “forcible contact to the head or neck area of a defenseless opponent.”

A targeting foul is an auto-ejection, and if it occurs in the second half, it includes a suspension for the first half of the following game.

A “defenseless opponent” includes, but isn’t limited to, a player:

  • in the act of, or having just thrown, a pass
  • who’s catching a pass or kick (or trying to) and hasn’t had time to become a “ball carrier.”
  • who’s in the act of kicking, or has just kicked
  • on the ground, or a player out of the play
  • who gets blind-side blocked
  • who has the ball and has had his forward progress stopped
  • who has the ball and is sliding or given himself up

Also:

  • A QB after he’s thrown a pick or someone’s fumbled the ball away

For a play to be targeting, it also has to have at least one “indicator.”

  • Launching, or “leaving his feet to attack an opponent by an upward and forward thrust of the body to make forcible contact in the head or neck area”
  • A crouch and upward thrust to make head or neck contact, even if the hitter still has feet on the ground
  • Leading with the “helmet, shoulder, forearm, fist, hand or elbow to attack with forcible contact at the head or neck area”
  • “Lowering the head before attacking by initiating forcible contact with the crown of the helmet”

That’s the whole rule. Here are four common misconceptions about it.

Any “forcible” hit with the crown is targeting, no matter where it strikes. A player could launch crown-first into a player’s hand, and that’d be targeting, by the letter of the rule. More commonly, you’ll see targeting calls after crown-to-ribcage hits.

This Louisiana Tech hit on Navy in 2016 was rightly called targeting, even though the defender didn’t go anywhere near the quarterback’s head. It was a crown hit on a defenseless passer.


ESPN

Not all targeting hits are helmet-to-helmet, and not all helmet-to-helmet hits are targeting.

If a player hits an opponent in the head but doesn’t lead with the crown, the hit might not be targeting, unless the opponent could be considered “defenseless.”

Officials don’t usually consider running backs defenseless if they’re just running between the tackles, for instance. Linemen butt heads almost every play, and that’s consistently allowed.

Heavy hits to the head of “defenseless” players are targeting. Those explicitly include kickers, players getting blocked from the blind side, and receivers going for the ball.

Here’s a targeting call on a launching hit to the head/neck area of an Alabama player who didn’t have the ball:


CBS

This one comes up a lot when quarterbacks take off running. “He’s still a runner,” someone might say, or “he hasn’t slid to give himself up.” Those are things that would make him “defenseless,” but he can still be targeted via the crown of the helmet rule.

The targeting rule can be hard to apply, even if you study it closely.

The rule is imperfect, tricky to enforce fairly at game speed, and has plenty of critics, especially when a call goes against a popular team.

But the gray area is a feature, not a bug. What makes a “forcible” hit is subjective, even if it’s sometimes obvious. So much is inherently left to interpretation.

The spirit of the rule is crystal-clear. The NCAA doesn’t like players using their heads to hit, or getting hit in the head. If you’re someone who has a vested interest in the survival of this sport, those are hard principles to argue, though we can always lobby to have the fairest rules possible.

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