The NFL never set out to be the “No Fun League.”
It just happened that way, at least when it came to the sport’s illegal-celebration rules for its players.
When Commissioner Roger Goodell announced in May that the NFL would relax those rules — making using the football as a prop, going to the ground to celebrate (as with a snow angel) and group demonstrations permissible — it represented an abrupt and remarkable about-face for a league that had spent years and years tightening such standards. The effect of that shift in philosophy will become evident soon, with NFL teams reporting to training camps and the preseason and regular season nearing.
So were those decades-long efforts misguided? That’s a determination that probably cannot be made until the success of the new approach can be measured. But some of those involved in the process say they merely had been trying to do the right thing.
“A lot of it was about getting feedback from the colleges about how the pros influenced the college players,” said a former member of the NFL’s rule-making competition committee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to provide frank assessments of past internal deliberations. “It was about sportsmanship. It was about having class, if you will. We felt like NFL players were the role models for players everywhere at all levels. But it was a constantly moving target. It was always easier to say what you couldn’t do than what you could do.”
The enduring images are of Owens, while a member of the San Francisco 49ers, standing on the Cowboys’ star on the 50-yard line in Dallas or pulling a Sharpie from his sock to autograph a post-touchdown football; of Horn pulling a stashed cellphone out of the goal-post padding; of Johnson using a goal-line pylon to “putt” a football. But none of those, taken alone, represented a watershed moment for the tone-it-down movement.
“I don’t remember any one thing that pushed it along,” the former competition committee member said. “It was an accumulation of things. It was all of those things together. I wouldn’t say there was a defining moment. It wasn’t any one team saying they had a problem with so and so.”
Going back further, however, a 1984 NFL prohibition on “overly demonstrative acts by players” is remembered as a reaction to one particular group of players, mostly because of one man.
A former NFL executive, who also spoke anonymously to provide blunt assessments of past internal discussions, called the early celebration restrictions under former commissioner Pete Rozelle and the competition committee, led by former Cowboys executive Tex Schramm, “partly in response” to the Washington Redskins and the “Fun Bunch,” known for their group-celebration touchdown gyrations.
The former competition committee member was more adamant about the connection, saying: “Now, if you go back to the Fun Bunch, that was Tex Schramm. That was clearly one team against another. But after that, I don’t know if that was ever the case.”
Troy Vincent, the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations, has seen the issue from all sides. He is a former NFL defensive back who played from 1992 to 2006. He served as president of the NFL Players Association.
Vincent points out that in his experiences over the years, neither side — players or management — spoke with a single voice on the topic. It all depended on your perspective: Were you the player (or team) who scored a touchdown or the one who gave one up?
“I’m showing my age,” Vincent said in a recent phone interview. “I came into the league in ’92. The Oilers still had [Ernest] Givins. It was coming off that generation of ‘White Shoes’ [wide receiver Billy Johnson]. You saw the Fun Bunch on the highlights growing up. Players became more creative. Serving as a [union] rep and as president, there were times where we as players said, ‘This is a gray area. This might be going overboard a little bit.’ But then other guys said, ‘Why can’t the ball be a prop? What’s wrong with taking a [pretend] picture?’ A guy would say, ‘I worked all week to make that play. Why can’t I celebrate?’
“The players wanted a line of professionalism. Defensive players would say, ‘Don’t point a finger at me. Don’t point the ball at me.’ The offensive players said, ‘It’s up to him to stop me, then.’ You don’t ever want the officials to have to be involved, trying to figure out what’s excessive. Over time, you get [input from] the players, the coaches, the officials. You add language. And it becomes more restrictive.”
In the era of Owens, the key issue became inciting an opponent.
“You would think about Terrell and you would say: You do this for a living. You [score touchdowns] multiple times a weekend. More than anyone, you should be Mr. ‘I’m Gonna Be Here Again,’ ” Vincent said. “You stand on the star, and you’ve disrespected every guy on [the Cowboys’] sideline. It’s always trying to find that balance. That’s what it’s always been. … You want to appease the fans, the referees, the players, the coaches, the owners. You get everybody’s input. That’s what we tried to do.”
Even if it wasn’t personal against Owens or anyone else, NFL traditionalists spent decades continuing to wag their fingers when it came to players’ celebrations. The tipping point, it seems, came last season, when the NFL had officials crack down even further. That was part of a Goodell-led push toward improved sportsmanship in the aftermath of an ugly series of on-field confrontations between cornerback Josh Norman, then with the Carolina Panthers, and New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. during a game late in the 2015 season.
The illegal-celebration flags were flying early last season, and players and fans alike seemed baffled. Redskins tight end Vernon Davis was penalized for a modest celebration in which he flipped the football over the goal post like a basketball jump shot.
“I think there was a feeling last year that we’d gone too far,” a high-ranking official with one NFL team said earlier this offseason.
It was Goodell who reeled things in. He sought the opinions of current and former players. He took the lead on the issue. He said at March’s annual league meeting in Phoenix that he wanted to take a little longer to make sure things were done correctly, with additional input by players. Last month, while the owners met in Chicago, Goodell outlined the new plan in a letter to fans.
“It came after a lot of discussions with our players, our coaches and our officials, our clubs and the fans,” Goodell said at the conclusion of the owners’ meeting. “We saw a lot of interest in liberalizing and allowing the players a little more freedom to be able to express their joy, their individuality and, frankly, celebrate the game. So that’s what we think we’ve accomplished here. There will be an ongoing dialogue with a lot of parties to make sure that we implement it.”
Finding a balance is what the league tried to do this year.
“When the [competition] committee got together in February and we went through the cutup on unsportsmanlike conduct penalties, we went around the room and asked everyone: Foul or no foul? People were split,” Vincent said. “There was no consensus. That said: We’ve got to take a look at this.
“Then we met with the players at the [NFL] combine, and we did the same thing. And the same thing happened. You’d say, ‘Why is that a foul?’ And someone would say, ‘Well, he pointed.’ So you begin to think you have to make some adjustments. You have the fans saying, ‘Why can’t they celebrate?’ And we said to the players if there were three or four things [to be legalized], what would they be? It was: ‘Why can’t I use the ball as a prop? Let me celebrate on the ground. Why can’t we work on it together [with a group celebration]?’ And you say, ‘What is wrong with that?’ That’s how we got there.”
The “No Fun League” reputation also stemmed, to a lesser degree, from the NFL’s system of fines for violations of the sport’s uniform code. Players’ compliance with the uniform policies are scrutinized by on-site monitors, including former players, and even modest departures from the prescribed norm can result in fines.
But the league likewise has demonstrated a willingness to budge on this issue. Last season, the league set aside one weekend on which it was permissible for players to celebrate charitable causes on their cleats during games.
“This is an opportunity we’ve been talking about and planning for more than a year,” Anna Isaacson, the NFL’s senior vice president of social responsibility, told USA Today last season. “There are hundreds of players throughout the NFL who are deeply passionate about their causes and charities, and we’ve heard directly from them asking if there could be an opportunity to give some life to the causes they care about. So we asked ourselves, how can we showcase what these players are passionate about, the causes and charities they are interested in?”
But mostly, the reputation for stodginess was related to celebrations.
The NFL isn’t done policing celebrations. Those that are prolonged or offensive or directed at an opponent remain illegal, the league says. It will be interesting to see what the practical standard applied by the on-field officials will be.
The line that the NFL must walk, according to Vincent, is allowing players to celebrate within reason while avoiding on-field confrontations between teams and too much involvement by the officiating crews.
“There’s always the subjective,” Vincent said. “We don’t want the officials sitting there counting, ‘one thousand one, one thousand two.’ It’s about the flow of the game. We want to remove the officials from making those subjective calls. We need to stay on top of it and keep talking about it.”