The NFL has made a fortune on mayhem. The league is built on the foundation of violence, on the twin tenets of blocking and tackling.
Today it is obsessed with gesturing, posturing and hurt feelings.
How can a league so smart act so stupid?
The issue is taunting, which has become a heavy point of emphasis for NFL officials in 2021. The initiative is fraught with subjectivity and potential corruption. Far too much power has been handed over to officials who can now nullify the most impactful moments in professional football.
Like the one that helped lead to a Steelers victory on Sunday, when referee Tony Corrente seemed to purposely initiate contact with Bears defender Cassius Marsh, threw a flag into the air and penalized Marsh for taunting.
“I saw the player, after he made a big play, run towards the bench area of the Pittsburgh Steelers and posture in such a way that I felt he was taunting them.”
That answer is horrifying. So how did such an awful pre-existing rule come back to life so dramatically before the 2021 season?
The NFL’s competition committee features Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, Broncos executive John Elway, Saints head coach Sean Payton and Washington head coach Ron Rivera. All of them understand the temperature on the sideline and the energy exchange on a football field. They understand how fear and extreme violence create wild surges in adrenaline, leading to a swirl of emotions that must be released after huge collisions or enormous moments. You can’t just swallow the emotion required to survive as a football player.
The NFL’s definition of taunting is “acts or words that may engender ill will between teams.”
But most taunting penalties are not acts of provocation. They are simple flexes, the NBA equivalent of trash talking.
The committee also features owners and executives, like Falcons president Rich McKay, who previously claimed the NFL Players Association was the driving force behind the anti-taunting movement.
“Taunting is trying to entice that other player into some type of activity that is not allowed in football,” McKay told reporters. “So this year, the first issue brought to us by the NFLPA was that there was too much player-on-player taunting activity, and there was too much in your face.”
One problem: Browns center and NFLPA President J.C. Tretter disputed that claim on Tuesday, saying the players would be in favor of removing “the point of emphasis immediately.”
This initiative was a disaster from the very beginning and it’s only getting worse. The NFL is worried about players engendering ill will on a football field? As if malice and ill will weren’t part of the deal and part of its charm?
In the preseason, a fifth-string running back named Benny LeMay took a handoff for the Colts and angrily carried a mob of defenders on his back for a 14-yard gain. He was an undrafted free agent trying to earn a job with sheer will and determination. It was the kind of play that makes you jump off the couch. And he was penalized 15 yards for quickly barking at the opponent, for putting a cherry on top of the sundae.
LeMay was also fined $3,667, or nearly 50% of his training camp paycheck.
The NFL is in the business of making great television. They understand why the sport is uniquely American, stirring our bloodlust and enabling our vices. Which is why this taunting initiative is so perplexing and bizarre. Because nobody seems to want it, other than those who pushed the agenda in the offseason.
Taunting is a terrible rule to enforce because it is most likely to happen after the biggest plays and biggest momentum shifts in a game, when adrenaline is surging the most, when playmakers want to scream and howl. Which means an official gets to determine what is offensive in the hottest moments of battle. Which means football games may actually come down to hurt feelings. The NFL needs to retire this “point of emphasis” immediately, before a franchise and a fan base pay a heavy price.
Reach Bickley at email@example.com. Listen to Bickley & Marotta Mornings from 6–10 a.m. on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.