Celebration penalties are up sharply in NFL games this season. The league says it has not changed its rules but has made excessive celebration a “point of emphasis,” essentially asking officials to pay extra attention to enforcing existing rules.
When Andrew Hawkins of the Cleveland Browns caught a touchdown pass against the New England Patriots in Week 5, his reaction was unexpected. He came to a stop, then stiffly placed the football on the turf and robotically walked away.
The mechanical performance, Hawkins later acknowledged, was in response to the NFL’s growing crackdown on what it considers to be excessive celebrations. The clampdown has annoyed many fans, who have trotted out the old criticism of the NFL as the “No Fun League.” And it has raised charges of inconsistent enforcement.
“Everything you do gets fined nowadays, right?” Hawkins told Cleveland.com. “Me seeing the tape of what not to do — and I get it, rules are rules — but I thought it would be funny to do that and troll the whole situation, so that’s what I did.”
Celebration penalties are up sharply this season. The league office has not changed the rules but has made excessive celebration a “point of emphasis,” essentially asking officials to pay extra attention to enforcing existing rules.
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And that has meant the flags, and fines, are flying.
Antonio Brown of the Pittsburgh Steelers was penalized and fined in Week 1 for twerking after a touchdown and again in Week 4 for a pelvic thrust. (Brown’s moves were more appreciated earlier this year when he finished among the top five on ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars.”)
Washington cornerback Josh Norman got a penalty and a fine for miming shooting a bow and arrow, although New England quarterback Tom Brady eluded punishment on his return to the game for a similar arms-in-the-air gesture.
And the old standbys are still being enforced rigidly: Washington’s Vernon Davis was flagged for shooting the ball through the uprights like a jump shot after a touchdown Sunday, and Odell Beckham Jr. was penalized for taking off his helmet on the field late in the New York Giants’ game Sunday.
ESPN reported after Week 4 that taunting calls were up 220 percent, and unsportsmanlike-conduct penalties were up 56 percent from the same point last season.
Dean Blandino, NFL senior vice president for officiating, responded to some of the criticism with an explanatory video for media and teams earlier this month.
“The rule hasn’t changed in terms of what is and what isn’t taunting,” he said, adding, “We’re not trying to legislate emotion out of the game.”
He said “anything that mimics a violent act” and “anything that mimics weaponry” would be an automatic penalty. This explains why the bow and arrow by Norman was penalized, while Brady’s move, which was interpreted as a tribute to Olympic sprinter Usain Bolt’s lightning-bolt gesture, was OK. A lightning bolt has not been regularly used as a weapon since Zeus.
Brandin Cooks of the New Orleans Saints has eluded penalties with his bow-and-arrow maneuver.
“The reason for why I’m doing it and what’s behind why I’m doing it doesn’t have anything to do with violence,” he said. It is an allusion to the archery skills of Abraham’s son Ishmael in the Book of Genesis.
Whether dancing draws a foul depends on the nature of the dance.
“When it’s sexually suggestive, that’s a penalty,” Blandino said.
A celebration in general crosses the line “if it’s choreographed, if it’s excessive, if it’s prolonged,” he said.
The NFL video shows Victor Cruz of the Giants dancing after a touchdown against the Dallas Cowboys.
“The salsa dance is fine,” Blandino said. “But then when his teammate comes and takes the Polaroid picture, that’s a choreographed demonstration.”
Blandino said he believes letting colorful celebrations slide could lead to a slippery slope.
“Believe me, if we let this go it will continue to build and players will continue to try to outdo each other,” he said. “It leads to altercations.”
The NFL sees itself as setting a good example.
“There are many many kids out there that are NFL fans, who are playing football, and they see our athletes and they mimic what they do,” Blandino said.