By Liz Cohen
College football season is in full swing. Week 8 has come and gone, and the first BCS rankings of the season have been released. While the rankings usually stir up some controversy, arguably the most controversial topic in college football this season has been the NCAA’s update to its targeting rule.
In 2008, NCAA’s football rules committee passed a targeting rule stating that any contact initiated with the crown of the helmet or any contact to the head or neck area of a defenseless player would result in a 15-yard penalty. In 2013, the committee added a clause requiring any player guilty of targeting to be ejected from the game and disqualified for the remainder of the game, or if the penalty occurs in the second half, for the remainder of the game and the first half of the next game.
While the targeting rule has good intentions, its implementation has led to more headaches than anyone anticipated. Referees are calling targeting left and right in situations where the call was extremely questionable. On the plus side, the play can be reviewed, and the ejections can be overturned. However, the team is left to suffer a 15-yard penalty, even if the call is overturned. If the ejection is overturned, then the team should not have to suffer through the 15-yard loss. It’s an unfair punishment to a team that has done nothing wrong.
Though a player being ejected can definitely put a damper on a game and change the outcome, an unnecessary 15-yard penalty can hold the same weight in make-or-break moments in games. For example, an overturned targeting call in the fourth quarter of the Georgia-Vanderbilt game put Vanderbilt on Georgia’s 15-yard line with a first down instead of what would have originally been a turnover on downs, allowing Vanderbilt to score a touchdown that eventually led to a victory. Had the 15 yards been given back to Georgia, it would have been Georgia’s ball, and the momentum and trajectory of the game would likely have ended in a victory for the Bulldogs.
If the targeting rule is going to continue to exist, it needs to be redefined for easier interpretation. Referees this season are making guesses and calling targeting because of their golden rule, “When in doubt, throw the flag.” If targeting is going to be a foul, its definition needs to be more solid.
There are situations in football where hitting with the crown of the helmet is inevitable, like in the matchup between Missouri and Florida where Florida safety Cody Riggs was ejected in the first play of the game for targeting on a tackle when Missouri receiver L’Damian Washington was coming down from midair with the ball. There was no way that situation could have been avoided if Riggs was going to make the tackle, yet he suffered the consequences anyway.
There need to be exceptions to the rule to ensure fair calls are made. Furthermore, the NCAA needs to consider the possibility of returning lost yards after penalties such as targeting are overturned. The call a referee makes in a crucial moment can destroy a game in a heartbeat, and targeting is that call this season.