Reducing the risk of concussions and other forms of head trauma has been one of the major topics of conversation within all levels of the football world in recent years.

Now the National Federation of State High School Associations has addressed it through its rulemaking process.

Seeking to limit contact above the shoulders and lessen the chance of injury, the NFHS Football Rules Committee has developed and approved a definition for “targeting,” which will be penalized as illegal personal contact beginning with the 2014 season.

The approved language defines targeting as “an act of taking aim and initiating contact to an opponent above the shoulders with the helmet, forearm, hand, fist, elbow or shoulders.”

Bob Colgate, NFHS director of sports and sports medicine and liaison to the Football Rules Committee, said the panel believed it was important to separate and draw specific attention to targeting in its continued effort to address concerns about the prevalence of concussions in the sport.

“The No. 1 priority for the Football Rules Committee is the safety of those who play the game,” he said.

The move follows similar action taken in recent years by the National Football League and the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

“I think it’s a good rule,” said Bangor High School head football coach Mark Hackett. “I think it will help make the game safer, and if it means it happens even one or two times less a year then it’s a good thing.

“I like aggressive football and I like good contact. I just don’t think it has to involve the head.”

Unlike the college rule, the high school penalty for targeting will not include the penalized player being ejected from the game.

A new definition for a “defenseless player” also was added to the rule for risk-minimization purposes: “A defenseless player is a player who, because of his physical position and focus of concentration, is especially vulnerable to injury.”

“You see a lot of hits and people think, ‘what a great hit,’ but a lot of time they were really unsafe even though they weren’t penalized. We’ve seen the videos,” said Ralph Damren, a longtime Eastern Maine football official and the state’s representative to the NFHS football rules committee.

“Our concern in making the rules, as is the concern of every parent, high school administrator and coach, is safety.”

Colgate said that while there have been incidents of targeting at the high school level it has not yet become epidemic in volume, but the football committee believed the time was right to address the issue more formally.

“There have been rules in place involving illegal helmet contact and other areas encompassing what targeting involves,” said Colgate. “But the committee felt that this would be an appropriate addition.”

Hackett said targeting likely is more of an issue in the NFL and college ranks than it is in Maine interscholastic football, but having targeting addressed specifically in the rule book will provide an additional and enforceable means of addressing the issue.

“I don’t see a whole lot of it in high school, and I’m not so sure it wouldn’t be called a penalty already,” he said. “I think they’re just trying to make sure everyone is thinking about it. It will bring more attention to the safety part of it, which is a good thing, but I don’t think it will be a major change.

“We’ll continue to teach chest-to-chest tackling.”

Two other rule changes that will take effect in the 2014 season are designed to reduce the risk of injury on kickoffs by balancing the kicking team’s formation and limiting the distance a kicking team player may run up before reaching the line of scrimmage.

Under the new rules, at least four members of the kicking team now must be on each side of the kicker, and only the kicker may be more than five yards behind the kicking team’s free-kick line.

This year’s rule revisions are among the latest steps taken by the NFHS in the area of concussion awareness and management.

In 2008, the NFHS Sports Medicine Advisory Committee advocated that a concussed athlete shall be removed immediately from a game or practice and not return until cleared by an appropriate medical professional. For the past four years, all NFHS rules publications have contained guidelines for the management of an athlete exhibiting signs, symptoms or behaviors consistent with a concussion.

In addition, the NFHS worked with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to develop the free, 20-minute online course “Concussion in Sports – What You Need to Know,” which is available at

More than 1.2 million administrators, coaches, officials, athletes, parents and health care professionals have taken the course since 2010.

“The No. 1 area of concern is safety,” said Damren. “At every level of the game that is the primary area of discussion, especially with all the concern today about concussions.”

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Ernie Clark

Ernie Clark is a veteran sportswriter who has worked with the Bangor Daily News for more than a decade. A four-time Maine Sportswriter of the Year as selected by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters...