In these times when so much divides Americans, the targeting penalty brings college football fans together.
Just about all of them hate it.
The targeting foul turns 10 this season, though the real rage against it did not start until 2013 when player ejections became part of the penalty. The rule remains unchanged despite an offseason discussion of whether to eliminate ejections for certain infractions, and the effort to protect players is spreading: The NFL competition committee earlier this year approved automatic ejections for egregious hits to the head.
Targeting can be a difficult call for officials, a split-second evaluation of a high-speed collision. The 15-yard penalty that comes with it can drastically swing a game and losing a player to an ejection is a dramatic step. It does remain a relatively rare call. Even last year, when targeting fouls reached new highs in total (144) and per game (0.17), the number still amounted to only one every 5.83 FBS games played.
For many involved with college football, this seems a small price to pay to attempt to make the game safer - especially as studies on the toll football takes on the body and brain continue to yield worrisome results.
While it is impossible to quantify whether ejecting players has led to a decrease in the rate and number of head and neck injuries, those who play a part in shaping college football's rules say they can see a difference in the way the game is being played.
''We can see clear changes in behavior of the players,'' said Rogers Redding, the national coordinator of officials. ''By that I mean, we see less of players just launching themselves like a missile at a guy's head. We still see it sometimes, but you also see a lot of times when they're coming in lower. They're getting their heads out of the way. They're making contact at the chest or in the side, not going high.''
Another telltale sign: Dangerous hits that in the past would produce high-fives and chest-bumps by players now are no longer cause for celebration.
''Now what you'll see is, you'll see a player make a hit like this and one of the early reactions is he'll grab his helmet and say, `Oh, my goodness what have I done,''' Redding said.
Targeting is not just about trying to curtail concussions. What has been lost in the constant focus on concussions in football is that the targeting rule was put in place as a response to research that showed the number of catastrophic head, neck, spine and brain injuries at all levels of football spiked in the 2000s.
Ron Courson, the head athletic trainer and director of sports medicine at the University of Georgia, was part of the push to add the targeting personal foul back in 2008. Courson said studies have shown that when catastrophic injuries happen in football it is usually the player doing the striking with the crown of the helmet who sustains the injury.
The targeting rule is as much about protecting the player delivering the hit as the one taking it, Courson said. He said tackling now is more about the ''big hits'' than trying to ''wrap up'' a player, and there are other factors, too.
''They are faster and they are stronger and that leads to more violent collisions,'' Courson said.
Since 2013, when the automatic ejection was added, all targeting calls are subject to video review and can be overturned. Last season, replay officials were given the discretion to call obvious targeting fouls that were missed by field officials. There were 28 targeting fouls called in FBS last season by replay officials.
Redding said he believes the reason targeting fouls have increased from 0.04 per game in 2013 to 0.17 last year is because officials have become more comfortable with making the call.
Todd Berry, executive director of the American Football Coaches Association, said coaches are adapting and emphasizing tackling techniques that help avoid targeting. Still, there is frustration when players are flagged for hits that seemed impossible to avoid.
''We applaud the nature of why we're doing this,'' Berry said. ''And we want to do everything we can to help and resolve this, but we also need to kind of recognize: Are we asking the kids to do something physically that they're not capable of doing?''
During the offseason, officials decided the occasional hard-luck foul that leads to a player getting ejected was not enough reason to modify a rule designed to take dangerous hits out of the game. The penalty is punitive, but necessary if changing behavior is going to continue, said Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby, who also heads the football oversight committee.
''As much as some people don't like it, it's making the game safer,'' Bowlsby said. ''I don't believe it's sissified the game. I don't think it's diminished the quality of play. I think it's made the game safer.''
Follow Ralph D. Russo at www.Twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP
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