Sage Stretch, '24
Since the beginning of the season, the NFL’s taunting rules have become a dominant source of complaints and jokes between players, fans, and management. The slogan “No Fun League,” is frequently used by fans who are frustrated by these penalties.
The exact wording of the unsportsmanlike taunting rule is “Using baiting or taunting acts or words that may engender ill will between teams.” This rule is not a new addition to the NFL, however this season’s officiating staff has chosen to emphasize taunting and helmet-initiated contact this season. Breaking this rule results in a fifteen-yard penalty, and two offenses from the same player can result in ejection from the game. This emphasis on the rule is not insignificant: it has resulted in thirty penalties in the first 10 weeks of the season, as compared to ten penalties in the entire 2020 season. In addition to the loss of yardage during the game, players can also be fined up to $10,300 for one violation, and up to $15,450 for the second one. The complaints about the frequency of this penalty dramatically increased after the Steelers vs. Bears game in Week 9 of this season. In the fourth quarter with less than four minutes left, on 3rd down and 8, Bears’ outside linebacker Cassius Marsh sacked Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger by the fifty yard line. Marsh then proceeded to celebrate with his teammates facing the Steelers sideline, but not directed at any player in particular. The referee called a taunting penalty which gave the Steelers a first down and allowed them to continue their drive and score a field goal. The Steelers eventually won the game, and most Bears fans credit their loss to that penalty.
This debate is not confined to spectators on Twitter, it has also added to the tension between players and NFL management. Many players and fans argue that these rules take the fun out of the games and celebrations. Because of the competitive nature of the NFL, players are inherently intense and celebrate after big plays, so many players and fans argue that the taunting rules diminish the players’ ability to have fun during games. Another frequent complaint is that these rules add to the excessive, rising number of penalties in the league, or that the penalty is too influential for an offense that occurs after the play. The fines to the players only add to the frustration over these rules. Very few NFL players achieve the massive contracts that are publicized, so these expensive fines, not only for taunting but also other seemingly unnecessary rules, appear to target players for doing their job. However, the arguments in favor of unsportsmanlike penalties also have a lot of support particularly with coaches and NFL management, who argue that the rules accomplish what they are meant for, reducing animosity between players and teams. They also create a professional and respectable environment for the employees of the league and reduce the chance of fights and brawls during or after games, if players have more meaningful consequences. Many coaches and owners believe that the passion that the players display during games can be preserved without the hostility that frequently accompanies it.
Thankfully, this uptick in specific penalties is actually very common for the NFL. Despite the consistent level of tension between teams and players, the number of taunting penalties in the past decade have been very low, so for this season, the referees are especially sensitive to unsportsmanlike conduct. However, the number of penalties will decrease, and competitive celebrations will increase again, so this debate will not have to continue for much longer.