The NFL’s new taunting rules prove how little owners care about fans and athletes

Every year the NFL rules committee reviews, tweaks and augments elements of the game in an effort to mold football more to the league’s image. Inside of this exists the “points of emphasis” — new or existing rules the NFL is asking officials to pay greater attention to and enforce more stringently.

This year’s point of emphasis is taunting, and the effect it has on the NFL could be the biggest, and most important in recent years.

With each passing of new NFL rules there exists tweaks that definitely change things up, but historically it’s been the points of emphasis that have truly altered the game of football.

  • 2017’s focus was on hitting quarterbacks below the knees. This helped the league move more towards passing as defenders had less options to take down opposing quarterbacks.
  • 2018 saw the emphasis on the helmet as the primary weapon in tackles. In the years since it’s completely changed how players tackle, as well as resulted in numerous game-changing moments caused by penalties.
  • 2019 was all about team celebrations. It brought an end to the choreographed touchdown celebrations.
  • 2020 saw the helmet be the focal point, but the emphasis was expanded to include plays away from the ball. In addition, lowering the head on a tackle was banned — increasing the rate penalties were issued.

There’s little question that the 2018 and 2020 changes were needed, especially in light of the public becoming more aware of CTE. Helmet hits were terrible, not only for the recipient, but also the tackler. These alterations were made in order to protect players who would otherwise be willing do anything and everything to get an advantage on the field.

It’s the NFL’s increasing insistence on penalizing players for celebrations that remains mystifying. It doesn’t help when some of these rules’ biggest proponents, like Giants’ owner John Mara, are failing to really articulate why it’s bad for the game.

“Nobody wants to see a player taunting another player. I know I certainly don’t. I know the rest of the members of the competition committee feel the same, too.”

The issue is the wide generalization that “nobody” wants to see taunting. In fact, it’s an argument that has no factual basis. Of the numerous studies done on NFL ratings to better understand why fewer people are tuning in, “taunting” has never been cited as a reason people refuse to watch. Some fans dislike player protest, others feel the game is too violent and some are turned off by the off-field violence towards women. The biggest reason is that fewer millennials and members from Gen Z have broadcast packages that allow them live football.

So, when Mara says “nobody wants to see players taunting,” he’s really saying “the old men making decisions don’t want it.” And it’s here we begin to get to the heart of the issue.

The NFL has always opposed personal expression. The NFL had been pushing a unified brand that kept all players in sync long before Colin Kaepernick made a stand. The league has opposed the idea of players creating their own brands, from uniform requirements to fines for using items that are not sponsored.

The NFL does not want any player to be anything more than a talented player wearing a league-approved jersey or helmet. This is in contrast to the NBA where individuality is celebrated. The rest is kept away as much as possible. It shifts the focus away from the person below and instead to the helmet or the team. Sometimes this manifests itself in the most absurd of ways. like when Brandon Marshall was fined over $10,000 in 2013 for wearing green cleats — because he wanted to raise awareness for mental health.

If you follow this line we begin to understand the league’s Real rationale behind banning taunting like celebrations before it. The old men in charge of the business have a very definite opinion that football doesn’t belong to the fans, or the players — but those in power. It’s an effort to make the athletes “learn their place,” while telling fans their wants and desires don’t matter.

If that sounds like the league is out of touch, it’s because they are. The NBA WNBAParagons of player independence and supporting athletes relative in other sports, the governing bodies have begun to listen to what their fans want. Fans want to feel involved. They want to be involved. They want to love some players, and hate others — and if that’s because someone likes to trash talk or taunt, so be it.

This is the heart of the issue. Fans want to feel cared for. You let them care by getting them emotionally invested, and that emotional investment in a game comes from places far beyond a team’s win/loss record. John Mara may not like players taunting but it is a fact that virtually no one wants to see this become the norm.

 

You can talk as much as you like if you drag an entire defense for 14 yards. Benny LeMay was an undrafted, free agent who wanted to make an impact. He talked a lot to a defender, and he harmlessly tossed a ball in the air.

Sure, as a Panthers fan I don’t like seeing my team’s defense get embarrassed — but also, like, if these rules were active when Steve Smith was playing then by favorite receiver would have been ejected from every single game. You know why Smith was so beloved by home fans but hated by others? Because he was a natural leader. He was a magnet for emotion. His on-field trash talking, taunting, and chanting fired up the crowds and made them buy in to football. It made them care even more about it.

Now, a generation of fans won’t get to feel that. Instead they’re going to be fed the NFL’s bland, sanitized football mush, free of seasoning and served only to the most boring fans. These are the people who think ketchup has spicy taste.

Before we address the elephant in question, the NFL is introducing yet another subjective, referee-decided penalty to a league that is already plagued by subjective penalties. It remains to be seen whether taunting penalties will be equally enforced, or, God forbid, we see certain positions or people of color unfairly targeted by a rule that, by design, is based on the perception of a referee — rather than anything tangible.

The league is defining taunting as: “baiting or taunting acts or words that may engender ill will between teams.” This is a game where two teams are literally trying to prevent each other from succeeding. It’s competition. There will be ill will. So, how does a referee get to decide what actions engender ill will, and what doesn’t? There isn’t an answer. At least there isn’t a logical one. Instead we’re going to see players have to make a choice between celebrating their own achievement, which we all love, or hurting their team through a penalty — and that sucks.

The NFL is hellbent on championing its vision of football above everyone else’s, and the new taunting point of emphasis solidifies it. This might seem like a small deal now, but wait until your team’s star receiver gets up after catching a key first down on a game-winning drive and gets hit with a 15 yard penalty for celebrating the big moment. Then we’ll see if the old man vision of football being presented by the NFL is worth it.

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