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Targeting Calls in College Football are an Incomplete Safety Solution

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Minnesota Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

On Saturday, Duke McGhee was ejected for targeting for the second time this season. McGhee was flagged for hitting Austin Carr, who was judged to be a defenseless receiver, with the crown of his helmet. Carr did not return after being helped off the field. The penalty was also the Gophers seventh targeting call of the year. Of the seven, three of them are disputed by the coaches.

Targeting has been particularly controversial this year. As a rule, it is poorly understand by both fans and officials. It is almost certainly inconsistently enforced across teams and across conferences. While the Gophers have been flagged repeatedly for targeting, the same has not been true of their opponents, a fact that Mitch Leidner has become too familiar with over the last two seasons.

More so than any other rule, targeting represents for a sizeable portion of fans a way of describing dirty play from not dirty play. Hits that are not targeting are clean hits that are acceptable within the rules of the game. Fans label teams dirty if their players receive targeting penalties. On some level, that seems like a fair assessment because dirty teams cheat. What those same fans will likely not think about are the vicious hits that are not only acceptable, but celebrated. These hits make highlight reels after the game.

There are also the hits unseen by the vast majority of spectators. They occur on kickoffs and on running plays, on bubble screens and punt returns. These clean hits are the acceptable violence of the game, but make no mistake it is still violence. The hits still hurt. The seen and unseen injuries are just as real.

Below are three plays. The first one is a controversial targeting call. In it, Nick Rallis executes a clean shoulder to shoulder hit on a crossing route, the force of which led to a Purdue receiver’s head recoiling. He was ejected for targeting because he hit a defenseless receiver.

A defenseless player by definition is a player that cannot defend himself. See if you can identify what makes the Purdue receiver different from the Oregon State quarterback below.

What about this Colorado State quarterback?

In the second and third plays, the quarterback did not realize they were about to be tackled until Tai’yon Devers hit him in the chest with the force of a car crash. That’s not an exaggeration. Multiple studies have shown that football players deliver the same force on a tackle as a car crash. The quarterback is defenseless in both of them. He does not have time to brace for impact. Nonetheless, the second and third plays are “safe” according to the rules. Neither one of these hits were illegal. There is no rule against hitting a player as hard as possible as long as you do so below his neck. The aftermath of that hit is not the concern for rules. Nor are those hits unique to the Gophers. Each week there are dozens of similar tackles and blocks.

Let me be clear. I do not think that Devers should be penalized for the hits above. I do not believe that Rallis’s hit met the definition of targeting. I do not think that NCAA football players are unaware of the risks that they take whenever they walk on a football field. I do not think that Minnesota is a dirty football team. I like watching football in part because I like the violence of football as much as I like the beauty. I let out a guttural hoot when Devers rocked the quarterback and cheered at the forced fumble. I choose to watch players compensated well below their value play a sport that risks their short and long term health on a weekly basis. I am complicit in this acceptable level of violence, and in some way responsible for the implications.

What I do not find acceptable is current efforts to make the game safer. Over the past decade, the NCAA has increased the number of rules related to player safety, and expanded their scope each year to cover more players. Players are now ejected in addition to being penalized for the supposedly egregious hits that we know as targeting. Each of these rules is designed to put a veneer of safety on a sport that is inextricably linked to gross violence. Those who decide to play frequently live with the consequences of that decision for years after their playing careers end. College and professional players struggle years later from injuries sustained while playing. Outside the Lines reported that more than 1000 former NFL players are addicted to painkillers. No comparable study has been done on the rates of college football players, but there is reason to believe that there is a sizable minority living the rest of their lives in chronic pain.

The majority of these injuries come on legal hits, and frequently on normal plays. Chris Borland recounted to ESPN that after blowing up a wedge on a kickoff, he was unable to remember the rest of the game, including his own blocked punt. For all the discussion of player safety, there has not yet been a single realistic proposal to remove kickoffs and punt returns from the game. These plays have the significantly higher injury risks than any other play in football, but they are considered acceptable levels of violence.

Current safety rules almost entirely exclude defensive players. In fact, most rules to improve player safety really improve safety for the offense. Jonathan Celestin was ejected for targeting, but Oregon State had no problem going after his knees on blocks. Offensive players in college are still allowed to lower their head and use their helmet as a battering ram. Lineman are still allowed to cut block, a move that threatens permanent knee damage.

The push to hit lower and lower forces defenders to take on additional risk. As Jay Sawvel noted in an interview with Andy Greder of the Pioneer Press,

“You say, ‘go lower’ and then all of a sudden you have guys where they have their eyes in the ground to go lower,” Sawvel said. “All of sudden you teach guys to get into position that paralyzes them. We ain’t going to do it.”

Watch next week how often a defensive player’s head makes contact with an elbow or leg. For as many words that have been spilled about the violence against offensive players, curiously few have been written about what happens to the defense. As if defensive players are not injured by hits. As if defensive players cannot be defenseless.

While violence is intrinsic to football any particular level is not. Truly improving player safety will not be achieved by flagging players for leading with the crown of their helmet. It will not be solved by adding more rules that protect a subset of players. Reducing violence requires a fundamental rethink of how the sport is played. One way forward would be to remove the pads entirely and trust that self preservation would reduce the amount of leading with the head on tackles. Another rule change to improve player safety would be to remove kickoffs and punts from the game. I support both rule changes because I believe they would actually lead to increased player safety. Until that time, targeting calls will be a band-aid solution for a sport that refuses to come to terms with its own violence. The players deserve better.