Sports

The NFL and NCAA Are Launching a Bizarre New Crackdown

Why do they suddenly care so much about a rare part of football that is almost completely harmless?

Winfield Jr. holds up two fingers to Hill's face
Antoine Winfield Jr. of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers taunts Tyreek Hill of the Kansas City Chiefs during the fourth quarter in Super Bowl LV at Raymond James Stadium on Feb. 07, in Tampa, Florida. Patrick Smith/Getty Images

If you have found this page, you have likely already developed an opinion on taunting in sports—whether you think that over-the-top celebrations right in an opponent’s face are a stain on a game, a welcome sign of player empowerment, or just pure entertainment. Most of us have already taken sides in the battle over whether taunting is a deserved consequence of getting beaten by an opponent or an example of an unsportsmanlike ethos that will run sport into the ground. The major governing bodies of American football chose their path long ago. Taunting has for decades been a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty in both the NFL and college football. Those of us on the side of fun, who believe that great teams taunt, have already lost.

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Traditionally, “taunting” can already be almost any celebration that might be interpreted as showing up the opponent in some way: spiking the ball, dancing, trash-talking, or anything else one might be creative enough to conjure. “Bowing at the waist” and “altering stride when approaching the opponent’s goal line” are explicitly listed as unsportsmanlike acts in the NCAA rulebook, as is “imitating the slashing of the throat” (which, OK, fair enough). The NFL bans “any violent gesture, or an act that is sexually suggestive or offensive” and also simply “baiting or taunting acts or words that may engender ill will between teams,” among many other things.

But what the NFL and NCAA are plotting in 2021 is more expansive than their status quo opposition to taunting. Not only is taunting still against football’s laws of the land; both the professional and college games have in effect made it a megarule for this year. The term of art in football officiating is that taunting is now a “point of emphasis” at both levels, the kind of violation that on-field officials are instructed to watch out for closely and to call strictly. Frequently, a point of emphasis is an attempt to rein in something that has veered well out of control and is in clear need of a rollback according to the sport’s luminaries. In 2019, the NFL cracked down on holding, leading to a flatly ridiculous volume of holding flags early in the season. In 2020, it was quite understandably the use of the helmet in hitting opponents, which it had been pushing hard since 2018.

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In 2021, the NFL is again coming after illegal use of the helmet as one point of emphasis, alongside taunting, as the league explained in a recent video. NFL Competition Committee chairman Rich McKay, the president and CEO of the Atlanta Falcons, said the committee saw “an increase in actions that clearly are not within the spirit and intent” of the rules and were “not representative of the respect to opponents and others on the field.” The league is urging officials to “strictly enforce” taunting rules, with everything from ejection to fines and suspensions on the table depending on the frequency and severity of the taunts. NCAA leadership is also making taunting a point of emphasis, in line with its recent practices. “Currently the Rules Committee is satisfied with the solid judgment that officials are demonstrating evaluating celebration issues, and this focus will continue,” writes Steve Shaw, the NCAA’s national coordinator of officials.

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It all makes enough sense, because taunting is the sort of thing football’s suits have never much cared for. But it’s hard to see why it should matter so much to the sport at this moment, and it’s much easier to see ways that this emphasis could make watching and playing football marginally less cool.

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Everything in the rulebook is a rule, but as a sacred point of emphasis, the anti-taunting language in the rulebook is really a rule. The first big week of NFL preseason action provided a small preview of just how much of a rule it will be this season—at least to start, because it’s never clear how long a point of emphasis will be emphasized. On Sunday, the Indianapolis Colts’ Benny LeMay got a head of steam and, with the help of his offensive line, dragged much of the Carolina Panthers defense a full 10 yards after contact. LeMay, a 5-foot-8 bowling ball out of Charlotte who is trying furiously to make an NFL roster, flexed his arms while looking back at one of his woebegone tacklers, the Panthers’ Josh Bynes. In his emotion, he probably said something to the effect of “Wow, good play by me, bad play by you.” Then came the flag:

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The primary reason college football won’t have a more noticeable crackdown than the NFL is that it’s starting from a baseline of lower tolerance for celebrating in the first place. The NCAA’s preferred celebration has always been for a player to hand the ball to the referee, shake hands with each of his teammates, and then write a gracious handwritten note to the opposing head coach in which he thanks his team for being such worthy competitors. When the NFL decided in 2017 to relax its celebration rules considerably and allow more or less everything except direct taunting to an opponent’s face, the NCAA did nothing of the sort. College football is perpetually worried about its image, particularly with stodgy white people, and so it leaves little room for expressiveness from athletes that might rub that audience wrong. This is at least part of the NCAA’s subtext, subconscious or not, when Shaw, the officiating head, calls taunting “a bad look for the game.” The NCAA ties up a lot of its brand in sportsmanship, which fits neatly with the association’s increasingly endangered amateurism ethic. And powerful institutions in the sport are always jumpy about perceived disrespect, which is the main reason we have to debate every year if the Big 12 should penalize Texas opponents who throw the Horns Down gesture after a big play.

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None of this is an apocalyptic concern for the NFL or college teams. Football faces graver threats than making the wrong decision about how to treat a player doing a somersault next to a defender’s prone body after catching a deep ball. Larry Fitzgerald in 2003 was the most enjoyable college receiver ever even though he never did anything after a touchdown but hand the ball to the nearest zebra. I’ve never encountered anyone who claimed they’d stop watching football if celebrations got either more or less audacious, and if I did, I’d assume they were lying. But taunting seems a silly focus on the NFL and NCAA’s part anyway, for two main reasons.

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First, the past year and a half have not been most people’s idea of fun, and as a consumer of sports, anything extra that might make me crack a smile during a game is welcome. There’s never been a better time to lean into fun, and celebrations are certainly that. (I mean, just look at this and try to frown and shake your head. You can’t.) A taunting crackdown could chill celebrations more broadly while players and coaches sort out exactly where the line is, and that will make things slightly less fun. I’m not sure how a coach doing his job well could not see the taunting flag on LeMay in a preseason game and not tell his players to barely show emotion at all after their own splash plays. Second, at least in the NFL, the taunting rule doesn’t make sense in the grand scheme of the league’s rules. It is hard to envision how an opponent would derive more disrespect from a running back flexing and jawing in his direction (apparently illegal now) than from nearly an entire offense arranging itself like bowling pins while a touchdown scorer knocks them down by rolling an imaginary ball at them (legal):

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What are we doing here?

Even Major League Baseball—not an organization known for catering to fans who are not within striking distance of their AARP cards—has recognized that letting players celebrate with panache is a good thing, even if those celebrations get overtly disrespectful toward the competition. The league now includes bat flips in its marketing efforts and adoringly tweets highlights of hitters doing things that might have gotten them beaned in another era, or perhaps in this era if they happen to be playing for or against Tony La Russa:

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An argument could be made that cracking down on taunting might make it less likely that the NFL has incidents like the NBA infamously had at the end of last season, when several fans abused players or their families. But that’s not the argument the football leagues are making, and if it were, the most obvious step would be to do away with choreographed TD celebrations in the end zones, relatively close to seating areas. Those are not going away, and at any rate, the onus to not hurl objects at players is on the fans. It’s not on the players to limit how they express themselves. Another argument might posit that children are watching, and to that point: Yes, they are, and there’s no indication that football’s previous enforcement of celebration rules has corrupted kids too much.

There is a “no fighting in the war room” vibe to the entire issue of unsportsmanlike conduct in football, a gladiatorial sport that is in some ways a form of harmful fun. It is harmful to players’ bodies and sometimes harmful to communities in other ways. Those of us who love football are supposed to reckon with those harms. Celebrations are a rare part of football that is almost completely harmless. Launching an enforcement blitz that could discourage them even a little bit is a response to a problem that does not exist.

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