You see it every Saturday during college football season. There’s a big hit, the whistle blows, the crowd reacts and it’s time to move on to the next play.
Except that it isn’t time to move on to the next play.
Stop the game, because there might have been targeting involved. Or maybe targeting was called and there’s the need to go back and check and see if it really was targeting.
And so we all wait and watch. Slow it down on the replay and watch it again. Now watch it from another angle. Then another. Then talk to the retired ref in the TV booth who tells us what the call is going to be but often has all the accuracy of a weatherman.
Just for good measure, let’s watch it a few more times!
Must be nice, say local high school officials.
“If they (college officials) don’t get it right, there’s a problem,” says Daniel Robinson, now in his 23rd year as a football referee and 12th year as a head official. “Without the benefit of replay, mainly what we are looking for is intent. Any time we see a hit to the head, shoulder or neck area, our antennae have to go up.”
There are two levels of a penalty when it comes to hits like this. An illegal hit with the helmet can be a bit of a gray area and subject to a little more interpretation.
Keith Burton, who has been an official for 27 years and a head referee for 14, says it’s pretty easy to define targeting, but that may not be pleasing to the penalized team.
“With targeting,” Burton says, “you know it when you see it.”
Which was pretty much exactly what happened in the opening week of the season, when a North DeSoto defender was called – and ejected – for targeting against Airline in the first half. There seemed to be little doubt that the hit fit well within the definition of targeting. “That was textbook,” Burton said.
“But what you have to think about when you eject a kid is that it’s not like in college where they just bring in another star player,” Burton says. “You lose a stud player (to an ejection) in high school and it could really make a difference.”
The North DeSoto-Airline game was officiated by Burton’s crew and at halftime when the officials gathered, the official who made the initial call said it was the first time in 16 years he had ever made that call.
Both Burton and Robinson say they see it about once a year – Burton says he sees the lesser “illegal hit” penalty about four times a year – and according to Robinson, it does happen less and less every year.
But what if they had the benefit of replay? “I’d bet you’d see it a lot more,” Robinson said.
(There is video replay for semifinal and finals high school playoff games to review targeting as well as other plays.)
Adding to the pressure for high school officials to get it right the first time is that college referees really don’t have to.
“That’s what is so frustrating with what you see on TV (in college games),” Burton says. “They seem to have adopted this philosophy of ‘I’m not going make a courageous call and I’ll just let the review take care of it or make the call for me.’ “
For the fan in the stands, here what Burton says they should look for. “Is he defenseless?” he says. “Could be a runner being held up or a receiver coming down to the ground after a catch. But when you add in a factor like launching at the player, it’s pretty obvious.”
Is the player using their helmet as a weapon? Are they specifically looking to injure a defenseless player? Is it intentional? “That’s the judgment you have to make,” Burton says. “Those are the indicators.”
Burton will admit that targeting is called less in high school for a number of reasons. “High school officials have a bad habit of ball watching and miss plays whereas college officials watch zones and, because of their training, know those keys and what to look for,” he says. “And I think it comes down to high school officials are just gun-shy about ejecting a kid.”
“An ejectable hit means you were trying to do nothing but trying to injure the other player,” Robinson says, “and you didn’t do anything to try to make a legitimate tackle.”
No matter how cut and dried it may seem, the reality is that high school officials aren’t playing in the same sandbox as the college officials when it comes to making a targeting call.
“In college, even when you have eight officials on the field, you still see them stop the game three or four times just to go back and check,” Robinson says. “We have a split second.”
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