Controversies like the one currently surrounding linebacker Devin White and his upcoming suspension for the first half of the LSU Tigers’ Nov. 3 game against the Alabama Crimson Tide have really been festering ever since the NCAA beefed up its targeting rules earlier this decade.
As Zach Barnett of FootballScoop.com correctly points out, the call against White illustrates just how arbitrary the enforcement of the targeting rule is. Compared with similar plays in college football games across the country on a given Saturday, White’s supposed infraction looks like a run-of-the-mill quarterback pressure. It’s less egregious than hits that routinely don’t get flagged.
Nevertheless, the Tigers will be without the services of one of their top defenders as they try to take down the Tide in the SEC’s game of the year.
The situation seems to be screaming for more sensible rulemaking. For example, Barnett calls for two different flavors of targeting with different layers of penalties: one involving contact deemed incidental, another for nasty hits judged to be intentional.
Like most proposals to reform the targeting penalty structure, Barnett is essentially taking aim at the underlying enforcement posture of “when in doubt, throw him out.” In other words, the problem with targeting isn’t that the nature of the infraction is too ambiguous, but that the penalty regime is overly harsh. From the perspective of fans, coaches and players, that seems reasonable.
For its part, however, the NCAA looks at targeting through the lens of risk management.
Imagine what would happen in the United States if elected officials collectively decided that in the name of public safety, the country needs to cut down on speeding dramatically. Zero-tolerance laws for driving above the speed limit and significant, mandatory jail time for violators would become the norm. For the people out on the road, driving a car would be changed forever.
The NCAA, the conferences and the schools are facing their own version of a public safety crisis in the form of head injuries and the lingering health effects of football on players. Make no mistake, the targeting rules were fashioned to alter the sport of football fundamentally.
In theory, the rules force everyone involved in the sport to re-evaluate how the game is played – from changing the tackling and blocking techniques taught by coaches to affecting the instantaneous decisions players make on the field of play. If and when future lawsuits come down, the NCAA also can point to the targeting crackdown as evidence of the seriousness with which it has addressed player safety.
Unlike holding, pass interference or other garden-variety penalties, the goal with targeting isn’t to come up with an appropriate penalty to match the consequences of the offense. The shot-callers are trying to eradicate specific elements of the sport, or at least show the world that they are making the effort.
As such, would-be targeting reformers are left in the unenviable position of attempting to prove a negative – that targeting penalties aren’t making the game safer. Don’t count on seeing them expunged from the rule book in the near future.
— Written by Allen Kenney, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Kenney is founder and editor of BlatantHomerism.com and host of the Blatant Homerism Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @BlatantHomerism.