Increasing safety in any sport is rarely a bad thing, and in a potentially violent sport like football, safeguards are always at a premium.
In an effort to reduce contact above the shoulders and lessen the risk of injury in high school football, the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) recently announced a definition for "targeting," which will be penalized as illegal personal contact and begin to be enforced as such in Oregon this fall. The Oregon School Activities Association operates under the NFHS guidelines.
Crater football coach John Beck said Monday that he saw the move coming, especially after the NCAA began enforcing its own version of the targeting rule — to a great degree of scrutiny — this past season.
"They're just doing all the safeguards they possibly can to keep kids safe, and that's a good thing," said Beck.
The definition of targeting and its related 15-yard penalty were two of the 10 rules changes approved by the NFHS rules committee, which is chaired by OSAA assistant executive director Brad Garrett, at its January meeting in Indianapolis. The new Rule 2-43 defines the act of targeting as "taking aim and initiating contact to an opponent above the shoulders with the helmet, forearm, hand, fist, elbow or shoulders."
While the rule doesn't include an automatic ejection, as is the case in the NCAA, there's always an option for officials to eject a player if any penalty is deemed flagrant.
South Medford football coach Bill Singler had not received the email by the OSAA notifying coaches of the move since he's still part of the Medford teachers' strike and doesn't have access to his account, but he said he understands the intent.
"With the concussion issue that's out there and the issue of player safety, which should be paramount, I can see why they'd want to have a rule like that," said Singler.
That understanding, however, does lead to questions on how the new rule will be interpreted throughout the state.
"It's just hard to get all these officials in different places to be on the same page," added Singler, "so when we play in Roseburg, are they going to interpret it the same as in Grants Pass or Medford or wherever you play? Are you going to get the same kind of treatment? That concerns me, just the consistency of what they're going to call that from district to district and conference to conference and that kind of thing."
Beck likened the addition of a targeting rule to when new rules came out a few years ago in an effort to crack down on helmet-to-helmet contact.
"There's going to be an adjustment period," he said. "With the helmet-to-helmet contact it took about a year to get that kind of situated so everyone was on the same page, and you don't see it as much anymore. It's a growing period for everyone, for coaches, players and officials but anything they can do to keep kids safe we're 100 percent supportive of."
Beck said in the case of the helmet-to-helmet rule, there were an abundance of calls in the early stages, possibly to send a message that officials were going to enforce anything close to that. With that said, he is fully supportive of how the Rogue Valley officials will handle another new rule.
"I was really impressed with how the officials in Southern Oregon improved from start to finish this year officiating games," said Beck. "The level they finished at in our association was awesome on calls and judgment and all other respects. I have full confidence our officials will do a really good job with this. I bet all coaches would agree with me that the officiating here is really at a high level right now."
Singler said it will be beneficial for all involved to hear from the officials on how they will interpret the rule prior to the 2014 season to make sure everyone's on the same page.
The good part, according to both coaches, is that targeting really hasn't been much of an issue in Southern Oregon high school football games.
Beck said he and other coaches in the area need not be overly concerned about it "because we just don't see it that often."
That said, the possibility for targeting fouls is inherently there when it comes to the size, speed and athleticism of the football players these days. The highest likelihood involves wide receivers crossing the middle of the field and defensive backs breaking on the play while the ball is in the air.
"It's up to us as coaches to teach proper technique and we do it all the time," said Singler. "Sometimes, though, you get in the heat of a battle and it's a bam-bam situation when a kid's going for the ball or going for a tackle in some respect and they're coming together like a couple cars and boom, the play happens. Maybe a kid's not intending to hit above the shoulders but if the wide receiver moved his body a little bit you have a targeting situation."
Singler and Beck said their staffs thoroughly go through proper tackling techniques each season, but game situations or maybe an overly aggressive player can create incidents that are unsafe.
"You don't teach it or condone it but sometimes kids take it upon themselves, so I think this will help to just reinforce proper behavior," said Beck, noting that he's seen similar issues at the Pop Warner level and wouldn't mind targeting rules to be implemented there as well.
In another rules change, a new definition for a "defenseless player" was added to Rule 2 that states, "a defenseless player is a player who, because of his physical position and focus of concentration, is especially vulnerable to injury."
Also, two changes to the kicking game were made. First, at least four members of the kicking team must be on each side of the kicker and, second, no members of the kicking team other than the kicker himself may be more than 5 yards behind the spot of the ball.
The first rule adds another wrinkle to onside kicks, practically eliminating the ability to onside kick out of a huddle. The second rule is meant to limit the maximum distance of the run-up for the kicking team and thereby reduce the risk of injury on kickoffs.
"The Football Rules Committee's actions this year reinforce a continued emphasis on minimizing risk within all phases of the game," Garrett said in the NFHS release.
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry