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What is targeting in football? Is it a penalty in the NFL?

Those that are tuning into college football today after the NFL yesterday might notice targeting calls that are not commonplace in professional football. While the general rules of both college football and the NFL are similar, targeting is something that exists specifically in college football.

The targeting rule came into force in college football in 2008. This was in response to a crescendo of criticism towards football and its potential for concussion-related injuries, especially pertaining to the head and neck area. The rule reads that a player is to be penalized for targeting when the player—

“takes aim at an opponent for purposes of attacking with forcible contact that goes beyond making a legal tackle or legal block or playing the ball.”

The penalty leads to a 15-yard penalty and automatic disqualification. It is one of the few rules in college football that leads to direct ejection. The referees have to consider that the player who was targeted was defenseless and the opposing player led with the crown of their helmet to an area above the shoulders. Direct helmet-to-helmet contact also comes into this category.

There are certain indicators that are considered for applying this penalty. A player leaving their feet with upward or forward thrust and hitting the head and neck area of the player is deemed targeting. Crouching with upward or forward thrust also carries the same penalty even if they are not off their feet. A player lowering their head to initiate forcible contact is another indicator. Any player leading with a helmet, shoulder, forearm, fist, hand, or elbow to attack with forcible contact in the head or neck area also runs afoul.

So why does the NFL not have targeting penalties?

Targeting in the NFL also exists, but it is not directly enforceable on the field in the form of a disqualification. In each case, the issue goes to the NFL commissioner who is then responsible for deciding what further action they are going to take.

Even though there are no specific rules like targeting, the NFL does punish helmet-to-helmet contact and protects defenseless players under unnecessary roughness penalties. However, unlike college football, disqualification is at the discretion of the referees, but a 15-yard penalty is granted automatically. Additionally, the NFL does not penalize every hit to the head. Rather, it only punishes helmet-to-helmet contact and allows other hits to the head or facemask, particularly ones that may be inadvertent.

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