Opinion: targeting should not be in high school football

Everyone in the stands knows why the penalty flag is on the field. Even those who could not see the play unfold could hear the loud crack of two helmets smacking into each other. Those who could see the play know the defender’s decision to hit the ball carrier in the helmet, laying him out flat, will cost his team 15 yards for helmet-to-helmet contact. 

Except when the referee trots out to the center of the field, he announces that the defender has been ejected for targeting, or intentionally initiating contact to the head with the intent to harm. The defender is livid. The head coach demands an explanation, which the referees cannot provide. In situations like these, nobody walks away happy, and the stupidity of having a targeting rule in high school football is to blame.

The idea of the rule is to make players more aware of the hits they are making, as well as to reduce the number of “retribution” shots players take at their opponents. A player guilty of targeting is subject to ejection from the game, pending a review of the hit. While this rule is effective in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), the replay aspect of targeting makes it difficult to integrate into high school play.

In college football, officials have access to replay footage taken from professional high-quality cameras. They can view the play from any angle with excellent camera quality, and reasonably ascertain whether there was intent behind any headshot. But, no such footage exists in high school football. 

There is one camera in the tall building behind the home-side bleachers, which films the entire field in one angle. The footage goes to a tablet on the Marshall sideline, where players can review the previous drive to make adjustments. The camera works fine for its intended purpose, but there is no way for an official to clearly determine the intent of a headshot from that angle and distance.

Leagues specifically design rulebooks so there are as few external factors to games as possible. Unfortunately, one of those external factors is often the referees. Such is the case in football. If a referee removes a player from a game on a judgement call, that referee will have become a deciding factor in the game’s outcome. Even in college, officials call targeting on a know-it-when-you-see-it basis, though they have the benefit of replay. Giving high school referees the ability to eject players on a gut-feeling causes more problems than it solves.

The solution to the imperfect targeting rule is not to let cheap shots go unpunished. The National Football League (NFL) has come up with their own solution, which is relatively effective. And like most effective solutions the NFL has, the VHSL should steal it. If a player commits a personal foul of any kind twice in the same game, that player must leave the game. The difference here is that the fouls are not based on subjectivity. The knowledge that a hit to the helmet could put the player at serious risk of ejection would accomplish the same goal that the targeting rule hopes to achieve.

People often forget that referees are humans too. They make calls to the best of their ability, and sometimes the best of their ability is not enough. High school leagues can make their jobs a lot easier by removing the guesswork from their jobs while still protecting players.