Since its inception in 2008, no foul in college football has been met with more derision than targeting.

There are two types of targeting. First, there’s targeting a “defenseless player,” which most of the time means helmet-to-helmet contact. Second, there’s “forcible contact with the crown of the helmet.”

Few seem to appreciate the foul, or the subsequent penalty, which most deem too excessive (currently, a player penalized for targeting is ejected from the game and the opposing team gets 15 yards. If the player is penalized in the second half of a game, he has to sit out the rest of the current game as well as the first half of the next game).

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A four-year study by the Pac-12, first published in the Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine on Feb. 4, came to the conclusion, however, that the targeting penalty is needed in college football, if the goal truly is player safety.

The cross-sectional study compared “the rate of concussion occurring during targeting versus non-targeting plays” and found the following:

  • 538 football competitions and 68,670 total plays were reviewed. Targeting was called on 141 of those plays; 85 of the calls (60%) were upheld, and 56 (40%) were overturned.
  • A total of 213 concussions occurred. Concussion diagnosis was associated with 15 targeting events (12 upheld, 3 overturned), and 198 concussions occurred during non-targeting plays.
  • Only 0.21% of plays resulted in targeting penalties, but these plays accounted for a disproportionate number of concussions (7.04% of concussions).
  • The incidence of concussion was 106.4/1000 plays for targeting plays (including 141.2/1000 upheld targeting fouls and 53.6/1000 overturned targeting fouls) and 2.9/1000 plays for non-targeting plays.
  • The risk of concussion during targeting plays was 37 times greater than that for all other plays. The risk of concussion during targeting plays upheld was 49 times greater than that for all other plays.

The study wasn’t without its limitations.

Only Pac-12 contests were used, with the data than extrapolated across Division I football (FBS and FCS). The study also did not try to examine if the targeting foul has been an effective deterrent, nor did it measure the risk of concussion during competition before the adoption of the rule in 2008.

That being said, the conclusion was simple: Concussion risk was significantly higher during plays in which targeting was called, especially those in which targeting fouls were upheld.

In response to the study and in an interview with Sports Illustrated’s Ross Dellenger, Steve Shaw, the NCAA’s national coordinator of officials, noted, “This would indicate that what we’re calling ‘targeting’ is the most dangerous plays we need to get out of the game. This reaffirms that the targeting rule itself is the right rule. We’re working to take head hits out of the game.”

Doug Aukerman, the associate athletic director at Oregon State, who also chairs the Pac-12’s medical advisory board and was one of the sponsors of the study, told Dellenger, “The penalty needs to be sufficient enough to discourage this kind of play. I don’t know that the current penalty format necessarily needs to stay the same as it is, but making this type of play illegal is important.”

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The NCAA is currently weighing a rule proposal that would enable teams to appeal targeting penalties that occur in the second half of a game, potentially avoiding carry-over into the next game.

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That will not do away with the controversial nature of the foul. Many will still believe the rule is unevenly enforced.

Given all the data, though, targeting is here to stay.

“The (NCAA Football Rules Committee) strongly supports the targeting rule and believes it continues to directly support player health and safety and technique,” said David Shaw, rules committee chair and coach at Stanford.

“Adjustments have been made in recent years to ensure proper enforcement, which is very important, given the significant penalty associated with the rule. It is understood that targeting receives a lot of media and fan attention — and rightfully so. In the rare instance when a penalty is incorrectly applied, we believe there should be a mechanism to correct it before the next week to enhance this rule.”

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