The NFL made a quick decision Monday morning not to fine Dallas Cowboys tailback Ezekiel Elliott for his viral Salvation Army kettle celebration. Among other things, it was a tacit admission that Elliott shouldn't have been penalized in the first place for what was a harmless (if technically illegal) act after scoring on a 2-yard touchdown in his team's 26-20 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
From a literal standpoint, Elliott did violate the NFL rule that prohibits players from using the ball or anything else on the field as a prop. The league's policy also requires a fine for any unsportsmanlike conduct penalty deemed to be justified upon midweek review. When a player isn't fined in such situations, it is a good indication that the NFL thought the penalty was either wrong or unnecessary.
The league absorbed heavy criticism earlier this season for a hardline approach to sportsmanship, and senior vice president of officiating Dean Blandino has since given referees flexibility to use judgment on whether a flag is truly merited.
The rules are written to prevent two results: a confrontation between teams and a poor example of sportsmanship for lower levels of football.
Elliott's celebration really didn't apply to either source of contention. It wasn't directed toward anyone from the Buccaneers; no one was likely to be enraged by it. And playfully jumping into an oversized kettle, which just so happened to draw attention to a charity during the holiday season, surely didn't violate any standards of sportsmanship. It was a unique moment in most every way.
Referee Terry McAulay could have looked the other way and only the most strident proponents of the league's "No Fun League" rules would have been offended. The NFL's office seems to understand the difference, and it was eager to let the world know that Monday morning.