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College Football Targeting Rule Still Confuses, Angers Fans

This is your guide to understanding the targeting rule, its purpose, inconsistency and why it’s driving you mad.

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Texas Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

From reviewing our comments section during the Nebraska-Fresno State game and other sites around the internets, there seems to be a lot of confusion, frustration and outright anger over the targeting rule. It’s understandable; no fan wants to see their best defenders ejected while at the same time they want to see their offensive players protected against big hits.

Therefore, we’re going to review the targeting rule as it exists.

The main complaints from fans are:

  • Confusion about the definition
  • Purpose
  • Inconsistent enforcement


We’ll start with the definition.

The definition of targeting can be found in Rules 9-1-3 and 9-1-4 in the NCAA manual “Rules And Interpretations” for football.

Those articles are listed below:

Targeting and Making Forcible Contact With the Crown of the Helmet

ARTICLE 3. No player shall target and make forcible contact against an opponent with the crown (top) of his helmet. This foul requires that there be at least one indicator of targeting (See Note 1 below). When in question, it is a foul. (Rule 9-6) (A.R. 9-1-3-I)

Targeting and Making Forcible Contact to Head or Neck Area of a Defenseless Player

ARTICLE 4. No player shall target and make forcible contact to the head or neck area of a defenseless opponent (See Note 2 below) with the helmet, forearm, hand, fist, elbow or shoulder. This foul requires that there be at least one indicator of targeting (See Note 1 below). When in question, it is a foul (Rules 2-27-14 and 9-6). (A.R. 9-1-4-I-VI)

Note 1: “Targeting” means that a player takes aim at an opponent for purposes of attacking with forcible contact that goes beyond making a legal tackle or a legal block or playing the ball. Some indicators of targeting include but are not limited to:

Launch—a player leaving his feet to attack an opponent by an upward and forward thrust of the body to make forcible contact in the head or neck area

A crouch followed by an upward and forward thrust to attack with forcible contact at the head or neck area, even though one or both feet are still on the ground

Leading with helmet, shoulder, forearm, fist, hand or elbow to attack with forcible contact at the head or neck area

Lowering the head before attacking by initiating forcible contact with the crown of the helmet

Confusion takes place because of two misconceptions by fans.

First, that helmet-to-helmet contact is required. 9-1-4 makes it clear that the contact can come from the forearm, shoulder, elbow, or fist. Note also that the rule includes “or neck area”, which leaves it open to broad interpretation.

Second, intent. The call has nothing to do with intent. It isn’t about taking a cheap shot or trying to purposefully injure a player. The name “targeting” seems to imply that, but if you’re asking officials on the field to determine whether or not a player was purposefully trying to injure another player you’re asking for the impossible.

In order to fully understand Rule 9-1-4, you must understand the definition of a “defenseless player”, as listed below:

Defenseless Player

ARTICLE 14. A defenseless player is one who because his physical position and focus of concentration is especially vulnerable to injury. When in question, a player is defenseless. Examples of defenseless players include but are not limited to:

a. A player in the act of or just after throwing a pass.

b. A receiver attempting to catch a forward pass or in position to receive a backward pass, or one who has completed a catch and has not had time to protect himself or has not clearly become a ball carrier.

c. A kicker in the act of or just after kicking a ball, or during the kick or the return.

d. A kick returner attempting to catch or recover a kick, or one who has completed a catch or recovery and has not had time to protect himself or has not clearly become a ball carrier.

e. A player on the ground.

f. A player obviously out of the play.

g. A player who receives a blind-side block. (I call this the Kenny Bell Rule.)

h. A ball carrier already in the grasp of an opponent and whose forward progress has been stopped.

i. A quarterback any time after a change of possession.

j. A ball carrier who has obviously given himself up and is sliding feet-first.

If a player gets called for targeting, review these 10 definitions and ask yourself if they fit the situation. If they do, and the hit was in the head or neck area, regardless of whether or not it was helmet to helmet, it’s targeting.


The purpose of the targeting rule is for “player safety”. A narrative has been established around football and head injuries, and that narrative goes like this:

If you play football, you will suffer concussions. If you suffer enough concussions, you will get CTE. If you get CTE, you will suffer from confusion, mood swings, loss of memory, depression and potentially commit suicide later in life.

It’s a simplification of reality around head injuries in football, and one that I’ll cover in more depth as the season goes on. Sports journalism doesn’t do really well when it comes to science and/or health issues. Regular media doesn’t do that well, either, really, so most of the time science and health issues become human interest stories, i.e., Junior Seau, Frank Gifford, Ken Stabler, Tyler Sash, BMX Rider Dave Mirra, and so on.

Note that I’m not saying the CTE narrative is completely wrong. I am saying it’s been simplified as if it is a sure thing. We still don’t know why some people get CTE and some don’t. Medically speaking, we’re in the infancy stage in really understanding what’s going on in our brains.

Perception is reality, however, and the NCAA at least has to appear that they’re doing something to combat the problem. Parents might wonder if it’s safe for their children to play football, and those who play football might think more seriously about lawsuits were they or their children become severely injured.

A cynical view, perhaps, but one has to wonder if the rule purpose of the targeting rule is for the NCAA and its member institutions to avoid more lawsuits.


It appears it’s the inconsistency in calling the targeting rule penalty that drives fan to madness more than anything else.

Iowa linebacker Josey Jewell was ejected on this play. It’s a particularly brutal hit to the head in the Iowa - Miami (OH) game.

Tennesee’s Jalen Reeves-Maybin was ejected for this hit against Appalachian State.

Minnesota lost THREE defenders to targeting Thursday against Oregon State.

Texas player DeShon Elliott was not penalized on this nasty hit on Torii Hunter Jr. in the Texas - Notre Dame game last night.

Why the inconsistency?

Because football is a game played by humans and officiated by humans.

Humans are notoriously inconsistent in how we see the world. It might be as simple as age. An older official (this is a fictitious example) might see a hard hit as “good football”. A younger one might see the same hit as something that needs to be taken out of the game in the name of “player safety”.

There isn’t some vendetta that the Big Ten or anyone else has against Nebraska defenders or YOUR TEAM. They’re not being watched any more than any other team. Several teams had players ejected from games this weekend (as I’ve shown above).

Humans being human is the simplest explanation there is for the inconsistency and really, it’s the only one you need. You could point to training, equipment, or other outliers, but those would just be deflections because we cannot fix the real cause.

And Finally....

Targeting isn’t going away. It’s not going to get any more consistent. It’s going to continue to madden fans, coaches, and players alike. It’s not about cheap shots.

You can debate whether the penalty is too harsh; players work hard 365 days a year only to potentially see one of the only few days they get on the field taken away.

And finally, you can debate whether or not it’s going to ruin the game of football. It might ruin defense, but Americans have a short attention span and love points. It’s not your father’s football, but if the guys that play it can be around long enough and remember being fathers, don’t you think it might be worth it?