Adding Differentiation to Targeting Penalties

After watching Monday night’s College Football National Championship, two things were crystal clear: LSU was by far the best team in the country and the NCAA must change their Targeting rules. With LSU up 28-25 on Clemson in the middle of the third quarter, Clemson middle linebacker James Skalski was ejected from the game after his tackle of LSU receiver Justin Jefferson was ruled as Targeting.

After watching the replay, it was evident that the officials made the correct call as Skalski did lead with the crown of his helmet. However, many fans were upset that Skalski was thrown from the game as it was obvious there was no clear attempt from the linebacker to cause harm or injury to Jefferson. Skalski was just trying to make a tackle. Skalski was not only ejected from one of the biggest games of his life, but due to NCAA rules he will also be forced to miss the first half of Clemson’s season opener next September. While Targeting penalties are in place to ensure the safety of NCAA student-athletes, more often than not the consequences cause irreparable harm to great players who are forced to sit out key games just for trying to do their job on the field. In the midst of this controversy, it is time the NCAA drafts new legislation when it comes to the consequences players face for Targeting.

While there are gray areas in the NCAA rulebook as to what exactly Targeting is, for now I would like to focus on the consequences that student-athletes face when called for a Targeting penalty. Per NCAA rules, players found to have committed fouls pertaining to “Targeting and Making Forcible Contact With the Crown of the Helmet (Rule 9-1-3)” and “Targeting and Making Forcible Contact to Head or Neck Area of a Defenseless Player (Rule 9-1-4)” face automatic disqualification. Automatic ejection is a strong consequence for a NCAA athlete especially if they are seniors potentially playing in their final game. It is an even worse punishment when it forces players to sit out meaningful games that have an impact on the school and community around them.

Two weeks ago, Ohio State cornerback Shaun Wade was ejected from a College Football Playoff game after he was called for Targeting for his hit on Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence. Wade, one of the best defensive players in the country, was disqualified from the game on a play that many saw as a clean hit because there was no intent to injure on the part of Wade.

When the play occurred OSU was leading Clemson 16-0, however after losing Wade the team struggled at times defensively and eventually lost the game. Losing in the semi-finals not only cost OSU a spot in the national championship game, but also the potential to earn millions of dollars in t-shirt and ticket sales. Once again, the consequences stemming from a controversial Targeting penalty played a key factor in a very important game.

Since Targeting is arguably the worst penalty a player can commit on a football field, the NCAA should look to how the NBA deals with players who commit the worst foul in basketball, the flagrant foul. Per NBA rules, there are two types of Flagrant Fouls: Flagrant Foul Penalty 1 and Flagrant Foul Penalty 2. Penalty 1 is defined as “Unnecessary contact committed by a player against an opponent” whereas, Penalty 2 is “Unnecessary and excessive contact committed by a player against an opponent.” When Penalty 1 is called on a player, the offender is called for a foul and is given a warning. However, if Penalty 2 is called the player is immediately ejected from the game. The NCAA should adapt these policies for its Targeting penalties.

The word intent, mentioned above, is one not found in the NCAA rulebook, however it is one that should be enforced immediately. The NCAA should have Targeting 1 and Targeting 2. Targeting 1 penalties should be called on hits such as Skalski’s when the player leads with the crown of his helmet. The penalty would result in 15 yards gained for the opposing team, however the player would not be disqualified. Targeting 2 should be called on hits such as the one Oklahoma DB Brendan Radley-Hiles had on LSU RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire two weeks ago in the College Football Playoffs. 

Targeting 2 would be called when there was clear intent to injure on blatant head to head hits such as the one above. When Targeting 2 is called, the offending player would be ejected. This differentiation in penalties gives players a second chance to remain in the game especially when there was no clear intent to cause harm to a player like in the Skalski play. While this makes these penalties “judgment” calls for officials, it still gives them options rather than immediately disqualifying a player per NCAA rules.

This proposal is in no way bulletproof and there are logical fallacies in my argument. However, having only one consequence for every Targeting call has been a disaster for the NCAA. Providing a differentiation of Targeting calls will allow great athletes to stay on the field especially when there was no intent to cause harm or injury to an opposing player.


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