Either Queen Victoria is the new commissioner of the NFL, or Roger Goodell needs to loosen his truss. The league’s flagging of “excessive celebration” with 15-yard penalties for unsportsmanlike conduct is straight out of the turn of the century and yet another exercise in imperial power. Maybe the next guy who scores should curtsey toward the owner’s box, and see what that gets him. Can someone be fined for sarcasm?
NFL refs have been instructed by the league to crack down on celebratory gestures as a “point of emphasis,” according to NFL vice president of officiating Dean Blandino. The result has been a significant uptick in penalties — and controversies, such as flagging Vernon Davis simply for shooting a jump shot with the football after scoring against the Philadelphia Eagles. These calls are not only incredibly quibbling, interruptive and unfair. They have a boot-on-the-neck quality that is actually uncomfortable for the audience.
“I just feel like you got a bunch of old, stale people in the league office who’ve been there for a while,” ESPN’s Keyshawn Johnson said. “And they got their set of rules. Football is a traditional old man’s sport. In the NBA you see a lot more turnover in ownership, but in the NFL, everything passes down generationally. It’s a good ol’ boy network.”
Like all pro leagues, there is a central tension at the heart of the NFL: “They’re grown men, playing a kids’ game,” observes Bill Cowher of “The NFL Today” on CBS. But the NFL leadership goes further than any of its competitors in its paternalistic, authoritarian us-vs.-them attitude toward players. It treats them like unruly underlings in need of monitoring and instruction on how to behave by mature white men, at risk of social mayhem.
When Davis, a cultured 32-year-old man who owns an art gallery, is flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct, it’s not just angering because it could have altered the outcome of the game. The implicit message is that Davis lacks self-restraint. He doesn’t. It’s insulting both to him and the viewer.
According to ESPN, flags for unsportsmanlike conduct were up 56 percent through the first four weeks of the season. Not all of them are unreasonable — but many of them are. Blandino, in a video released Oct. 7 to clarify the NFL’s rationale, says the league is attempting to enforce “generally understood principles of sportsmanship.” But where is offense against sportsmanship in any of the following gestures? Chandler Jones and D.J. Swearinger of the Arizona Cardinals recover a fumble against the New England Patriots and do a momentary little soft-shoe dance: 15 yards. Josh Norman mimes taking an arrow from a quiver and drawing a bow: 15 yards. Victor Cruz does a salsa while Odell Beckham Jr. mimics photographing him: 15 yards.
“Believe me, if we let this go, it will continue to build and players will continue to try to outdo each other, and then it leads to other things,” Blandino says.
Because, see, marijuana leads to heroin, and football players are children who don’t know when to stop.
Read the NFL rulebook on celebrations (Rule 12, Section 3, Article 1) and what you find is incoherence mixed with a sensibility out of old Chip Hilton boys literature. The rules date from 2006, when the owners became uncomfortable with the dance theater pieces performed by Joe Horn, Terrell Owens and Chad Johnson in the end zone. The result: a prohibition against dancing that appears too “choreographed,” or “prolonged,” or too sexual. You can spike or spin the ball, but you can’t use it as a prop — because God forbid someone should feign using it as a pillow or rock it to sleep. And you can’t “go to the ground” — unless in prayer.
As usual, the league is more interested in optics and image than real values. Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown has been flagged twice and fined $24,000 for twerking in the end zone, apparently because the refs found his hips too Elvis, and according to Blandino, it’s up to the NFL to keep the game pure for the kids.
“The bottom line is that there are many, many kids out there that are NFL fans that are playing football and they see our athletes and they mimic what they do, and we wouldn’t want some of these things out on the youth football field,” Blandino says.
Yet the league has no problem with glancing camera pans showing women with barely covered butts gyrating in public like coffee grinders.
“It’s okay to have cheerleaders dancing around making obscene gestures, but not okay for a player to have fun?” Keyshawn Johnson said. “I deem that hypocritical. Maybe I’m wrong.”
Then there’s this small point: If the NFL really wanted to be a healthy influence on young boys, it wouldn’t encourage them to turn their heads into soft cantaloupes.
“I don’t think excessive celebration should cost more than guys hitting other guys in the helmet,” Brown told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “There should be some differentiation.”
This shouldn’t be so hard. Anyone can agree on a few rules that make basic sense: mimicking a violent act, such as using a firearm, should be barred, and so should any gesture directed toward the other team.
“I always said: ‘Don’t disrespect the game or the opponent,’” Cowher said. “If you don’t cross that line, I don’t understand what’s wrong with it.”
No one understands. Players have worked their whole lives to showcase their talent, and surely are entitled to their passion after a big play. “It’s a very big moment in their lives, sometimes one of the biggest,” Cowher said. For the league to penalize and fine them for nothing more than personal exuberance is, among other things, weird.
“What’s the big deal?” Johnson asked. “Why do you care?”
That’s a good question. What is the NFL’s real interest in being so petty? It’s clear that owners and league executives believe they have the right to go far beyond policing the offensive; they believe it’s their right to curb individuality and impose their own sensibility. It’s an exhibition of power. It’s about controlling the workplace, and letting those childish commodities called players know who’s in charge of them.