Targeting Targeting

Joseph Yeager examines the new targeting rules that are going to change the way college football will be played.

Big 12 Coordinator of Officials Walt Anderson made the case as well as he could. In his report to the media about all the latest officiating rules and innovations, Anderson made clear that "targeting," which is the intentional use of the helmet crown, shoulder or forearm to strike blows above the shoulders, can no longer be tolerated.


As part of the onward march to render the game of football as safe as humanly possible, targeting will be called even in borderline cases, and the subsequent penalty will include ejection of the offending player. What's more, if that player is ejected in the second half of a game, he will be suspended for the first half of his team's next game.


Obviously, improving player safety is a primary motive for the strict enforcement and severe penalization of targeting. The sociopolitical climate in the United States has virtually zero tolerance for danger in any sector of society, and that goes for sports as well. New rules and enforcement reflect the zeitgeist.


But there's also a desire by current power-brokers in the game of football to maintain control over their sport. The NCAA, the various conferences, and multifarious universities currently control the game of football untrammeled by state and federal government. But, as Anderson indicated, if football-related injuries sufficiently stir up public sentiment, or if opportunistic politicians sense that usurping authority over the game of football is a winning political maneuver, outside forces will take control and enact their own reforms of the rules. And no football fan, even one who despises the NCAA, could want that. Thus, the reform must come from within.


All of this is well and good. Nobody can gainsay Anderson's reasoning. Nevertheless, the increased regulation of football, and particularly the extreme emphasis on targeting, will not be good for the game. It will create harms of its own irrespective of improving player safety and preempting a hostile takeover of the sport by outside forces. And it will do so in at least two closely related ways.


First, it will make the life of officials hellish. The rules for the game of football are already as voluminous as the United States tax code and as complex as ancient Dravidian philology. Burdening officials with still other rules and judgments will inevitably sow confusion and result in more blown calls.


Second, and worse, regulamania will further disrupt and slow a game already riven by disruption and nagged into lethargy by the ceaseless demands of television. The targeting rule in particular appears excessively subtle in its definition and gapingly open to subjective interpretation. Factor in the severity of the penalty and it's not hard to imagine frequent and interminable officials' conferences to hash out whether or not a particular play really was targeting. Factor in instant replay, which cannot overturn the call but may negate the ejection, and you've got a recipe for two or three extremely lengthy disruptions per game. Concomitantly, entertainment value will decline.


Again, the move to eliminate targeting was necessary for all the reasons lain out by Walt Anderson. But the sport will suffer nonetheless. The game of college football was and still is in a lose-lose situation.

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