The NFL is having one of its periodic pearl-clutching moments over the question of on-field behavior by the players. Once again, it is a solution in search of a problem.
Having finally conceded it was futile to try to curtail on-field celebrations, the league* has decided that taunting is what’s corrupting the youth of America, or leading to an epidemic of retaliatory incidents, or some such nonsense.
(*By “league,” I of course mean the owners and some coaches. Certainly not the players, whose reaction to the taunting crackdown has been torn between outrage and genuine confusion. Nor, I’d submit, the majority of fans, who don’t have a major problem with players manifesting the passion, emotion and energy that draws them to sports in the first place.)
Specifically, the NFL decided this season to over-zealously enforce the already existing rule that prohibits “baiting or taunting acts or words that may engender ill will between teams.”
Yes, we wouldn’t want any ill will engendered in a sport predicated on physical domination of your opponent.
Don’t get me wrong: It’s a worthy goal to eliminate blatant acts of taunting that are unambiguous in their intent to humiliate or shame an opponent.
It was Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart who famously described his threshold for pornography thusly: “I know it when I see it.”
That’s pretty much the power that the NFL has given its officials vis-à-vis taunting. The problem is, the zebras are seeing it when most people merely see spirited give and take, or excited reactions to key plays that have become an accepted part of modern sports.
Yes, all teams were warned that this was coming. But it still has been a jolt through two weeks of the NFL season. Eleven players have been penalized for taunting — one more taunting penalty than was called in the entirety of 2020; in 2019, there were just eight such calls.
The issue has hit close to home with two taunting penalties against the Seahawks, one in each game. The first was against wide receiver DK Metcalf for woofing in the vicinity of a Colts player after a Russell Wilson touchdown pass to Gerald Everett. The other was against cornerback D.J. Reed for his demonstrative reaction to a key pass breakup late in the Titans game.
In talking to Seahawks players, it’s clear they believe the league is conflating taunting with adrenaline-fueled emotion. Particularly in the case of the Reed penalty, it’s hard to see what line was crossed that isn’t crossed repeatedly (and innocuously) in the heat of competitive play.
“How do you control that type of emotion?” veteran linebacker Bobby Wagner pondered Wednesday. “That’s part of the game. It’s always been a part of the game. That’s what, in my opinion, attracts people to the game. Reed’s play — it’s the fourth quarter, it’s a big moment and he makes a great play; that (his reaction) is not even anything that big. I’ve seen that done plenty of times.
“I think the thing is the consistency of that call. I watched a game, somebody did that and they didn’t say anything. I watched another game where they did something even less than that. I watched a game where a dude dragged like five defenders and then he flexed by himself, he wasn’t even talking to anybody, and they flagged him.
“You can’t take a game full of emotion and passion — you can’t take that away from the game. Maybe we just have to turn away from the guy and not look at him, but the passion is going to come out. If you love what you do, you’re going to have a passion for it. It’ll be very hard for somebody to make a play and not feel good about that play if they love what they do. It’s an adjustment. I think it will be something that’s here for a long time. We’ll see.”
It seems clear that the NFL’s intent is to be picayune in its enforcement at the beginning of the year in the hope that players will be “scared straight.” They’ll reform their behavior, and the problem will solve itself and be a distant memory by midseason. This is often the case with these occasional decisions to emphasize enforcement of certain rules.
Alternatively, players might be unable to turn off the spigot of emotion and they’ll keep being demonstrative after big plays. The resulting backlash will not be over this perceived egregious violation of sportsmanship but rather over the capricious manner in which it’s being enforced. Perhaps the league will read the room and quietly tell its officials to back off a bit.
Or, a third possibility: Things will keep going as they are, with flags being thrown at the most highly charged moments of games, affecting outcomes to an extent not commensurate with the infraction.
As coach Pete Carroll has said, the Seahawks need to find a way to direct their exhortations at themselves, not their foe. But that’s not always readily apparent in the heat of the moment. All it takes is a referee who thinks they see a manifestation of taunting, and there’s 15 yards and the possible negation of a significant play. Games very well will be won or lost based on team’s ability to conform to this rule.
The Seahawks are particularly vulnerable because one of Carroll’s fortes is whipping his team into a frenzy. He admitted last week it backfired on them in their loss to Tennessee because of the spate of personal foul calls against Seattle, including the one for taunting.
So when it comes to toning down their reactions, the Seahawks need to give it to the old college try — even though Tyler Lockett rightly pointed out that college players are allowed to talk trash and get in opponents’ face much more than the pros, without recrimination.
“It’s almost like we have to play football quietly,” Lockett said. “You can’t talk unless it’s to your teammates, and that’s just not realistic. That’s just never how the game has been.”
And let’s hope it won’t be that way much longer.