The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The NFL’s taunting enforcement thus far has brought few flags but plenty of commentary

Buccaneers safety Antoine Winfield Jr. was penalized for taunting Chiefs wide receiver Tyreek Hill after a play during last season's Super Bowl. (David J. Phillip/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

The NFL’s crackdown on taunting by players resulted in plenty of scrutiny but few penalty flags during the preseason. Now comes the real test: The regular season arrives this week.

The league did not create a new anti-taunting rule during the offseason. Rather, the NFL’s competition committee — amid discussions with its coaches subcommittee and the NFL Players Association — made enforcing the existing rules against taunting a point of emphasis to game officials this season.

The NFL announced that during the offseason and reiterated it in an officiating video released last month, saying officials “have been instructed to strictly enforce the taunting rules.” It reminded players that two such infractions in the same game bring an ejection and warned that violations can result in fines or suspensions.

“This is not a rule change but rather a focus on setting an example for good sportsmanship and respect for opponents,” Dawn Aponte, the NFL’s chief football administrative officer, said recently. “The coaches subcommittee, the competition committee, the NFLPA, they all strongly recommended and supported taunting of an opponent to be a point of emphasis for the officials beginning in the preseason.”

There were three taunting penalties called during the preseason, according to the NFL. In regular season play, there were 12 such calls last season and 13 in 2019.

Cleveland Browns center JC Tretter, the president of the NFLPA, denied that the union endorsed making taunting enforcement a point of emphasis.

“The majority of fans feel that this is a bad idea — and so do the majority of players,” Tretter wrote on the NFLPA’s website. “... I can assure you, as an attendee of the competition committee meeting myself, that was not the case. On the contrary, we would support the removal of this point of emphasis immediately.”

One call that drew notice came in the Indianapolis Colts’ preseason opener Aug. 15, when running back Benny LeMay was penalized for a relatively modest display. LeMay pushed a pile of players forward before being tackled, then got up and appeared to say something to a Carolina Panthers defender who was still on the turf, then tossed the football toward an official.

“I think there was a lot of conversation about the ‘No Fun League’ for a while with some of the crackdowns on end zone celebrations,” Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said during a news conference a few days later. “It’s such a subjective call. Every situation is not objective: ‘Oh, that’s taunting.’ I don’t know. I think some of the calls — the call the other night was very soft, to me, and unnecessary. Hopefully they’re getting it out of their system in the preseason.”

Colts Coach Frank Reich said in an interview on “The Rich Eisen Show” that he thought what LeMay did was “fine.” But he also said he made it clear to his players that he doesn’t want them to taunt opponents.

“I don’t want taunting,” Reich said. “I don’t like taunting. I mean, I love the fire of competition. I want to dominate the opponent. I want to dominate the opponent in every way — physically, mentally, on the scoreboard. I want to embarrass them. We want to destroy the opponent. We want to shut every opponent out. We want to score 50 and have them not score any.

“But we don’t have to taunt. Taunting, as some people would say, it doesn’t look good on anybody. It’s not a good look. It’s not a good thing for young kids to see. I just don’t think that’s what this game is about.”

In advance of the 2016 season, the NFL implemented the automatic ejection rule if a player is penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct twice in a game. A year later, the league relaxed its celebration rules. That is the fine line the NFL is attempting to walk, allowing celebrations while prohibiting taunting.

“If you make a great play, great,” Washington Football Team Coach Ron Rivera, who is a member of the competition committee, said during the preseason. “Be excited, but don’t do it towards your opponent. That’s all we’re asking. That’s what the rule is for, because what we don’t want is an escalation of some of the things that have happened in the past.”

The NFL wants to avoid episodes such as last season’s incident in which Chicago Bears wide receiver Javon Wims was suspended for throwing two punches at the head of New Orleans Saints safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson during a game, following previous exchanges.

According to one person familiar with the process, the coaches subcommittee approached the NFL’s officiating department and the competition committee this offseason. Game officials had been warning players about taunting in some instances without penalizing them, and the coaches felt warnings without penalty flags were not providing a sufficient deterrent.

“That’s something we discuss every year in the competition committee,” New York Giants co-owner John Mara, a committee member, said at a mid-August news conference. “We get kind of sick and tired of the talking that does go on from time to time on the field. We’ve tried to balance the sportsmanship with allowing the players to have fun. And there’s always a fine line there. But none of us like to see that.

“It’s just a question of whether you can have rules that can be enforced without taking the fun out of the game, too. But nobody wants to see a player taunting another player. I know I certainly don’t. And I think the rest of the members of the competition committee feel the same way, too.”

Several coaches said in recent weeks that whenever the NFL has a point of officiating emphasis, enforcement often is most stringent during the preseason. So it remains to be seen how much this will be felt during the regular season.

“Everybody’s just got to relax, calm down,” Rivera said. “Let us go through this process of trying to make sure the players understand that: ‘Hey, guys, you can celebrate. You can have a good time. But let’s don’t taunt your opponent, because we don’t want the retaliation in this league.’ We really don’t, because it is not a good look.

“Quite honestly, we don’t need the young people to see that. We don’t need the Pop Warner, peewee football kids seeing us act like that.”