Twerk at your own risk: Peak No Fun League is here

Is the NFL the 'No Fun League?' (6:31)

Critics are taking exception to what they see as an effort by the NFL and its officials to take the fun out of the game as the number of taunting penalties has skyrocketed this year. Dean Blandino, Mark Schlereth and Kevin Seifert weigh in. (6:31)

When he announced a new rule last spring aimed at improving sportsmanship, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said: "We all have standards."

Those standards, if we've learned anything this season, have proved to be exceptionally high.

Taunting penalties have increased by 220 percent compared to the first four weeks of 2015, according to research by ESPN Stats & Information, and unsportsmanlike conduct penalties are up 55.6 percent. Officials are throwing their flags at any hint of post-play confrontation, for acts as simple as spinning the ball near an opponent or pretending to shoot a bow and arrow, and in the process enhancing the NFL's reputation as the "No Fun League."

Without a pullback from the league, or an adjustment from players, we are on track to watch the most heavily disciplined season in modern league history -- one that will deserve every effort to mock its extreme lengths.

"What you're seeing right now is a setting of the tone," said retired NFL official Jim Daopoulos, now a broadcast analyst for ESPN and other outlets. "And I think the players are going to need to take it to heart and understand that this is the way it's going to be called. I don't think you're going to see the league go to officials and tell them to back off. Sportsmanship is a big deal to them. The players are just going to have to adjust, and that's the only way this will change."

The development has followed two parallel but related courses. The first is a result of the Goodell-inspired rule to eject any player who commits two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties in a game. The primary target was taunting, explaining the surge in those calls, many of which have veered into highly debatable territory.

Cleveland Browns receiver Terrelle Pryor, for instance, was penalized in Week 2 after a ball he flipped to an official instead hit an opponent. Baltimore Ravens receiver Mike Wallace spurred a flag in Week 4 by spinning the football near Oakland Raiders linebacker Daren Bates after catching a two-point conversion Sunday. And officials called Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton for taunting because he flicked a ball toward Atlanta Falcons linebacker Deion Jones after a hard hit.

Daopoulos has been critical of league initiatives in the past, but in this case he said, "I think it needed to be addressed."

To be fair, most of the penalties have roots in language codified years ago in the NFL rule book in response to specific acts the league deemed distasteful. You might be surprised to know the depth and specificity of the list.

The rule book actually contains the following phrases: sack dances, home run swings, incredible hulk, spiking the ball, spinning the ball, throwing or shoving the ball, pointing, pointing the ball, verbal taunting, military salute, standing over an opponent (prolonged and with provocation) and or dancing.

All of them are considered taunting and illegal if committed directly toward an opponent.

(Yes, the words "incredible" and "hulk" are next to each other in the NFL's formal and official rule book. Glorious, huh?)

"I've always been an advocate of letting players have a good time," Daopoulos said, "as long as it's not in the face of another player. It seems like you were seeing that more in recent years."

Players have expressed decidedly mixed reactions, at times suggesting that high-profile players are appearing to be targeted. Others have expressed bewilderment at penalties for what they consider entertaining and benign acts.

New York Giants center Weston Richburg, the first player ejected for two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties under the new rule, told reporters that he did not know what he did to qualify for a penalty and added he thought the official who threw the flag at him was "after me." On top of the ejection, Richburg was fined $12,154. Giants teammate Odell Beckham Jr. said Monday that officials "are looking to call anything [on me] and not looking to call anything the other way."

The second issue is the uptick in other forms of unsportsmanlike conduct, specifically post-touchdown celebrations. As with taunting, the rules associated with this penalty have been on the books for years. The list includes throat slashes, machine-gun salutes, sexually suggestive gestures, prolonged gyrations and stomping on a team logo.

That's why Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Antonio Brown has been penalized twice for "twerking" after touchdowns, most recently in Sunday night's 43-14 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs. The dance is considered sexually suggestive, and Brown's version also included prolonged gyrations. Take your unsportsmanlike pick.

Brown was fined $9,115 for his first twerk and can expect a $12,154 fine for the second. It seems absurd that postgame analysis of a football game should center on the choreography of a post-touchdown celebration dance, but here we are.

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said this week that he hoped to get clarity from the NFL "in terms of what's legal and what's not." When Brown spoke to ESPN's Jeremy Fowler on Sunday night, however, he didn't seem deterred.

"Obviously they are going to be on alert for me," Brown said. "I just have to keep it positive."

Brown has been far from the only target. Pryor got a 15-yard flag when he emulated LeBron James' pregame chalk throw because he used the ball as a prop in a post-touchdown celebration.

Washington Redskins cornerback Josh Norman, meanwhile, pantomimed shooting a bow and arrow during a Week 2 game against the Dallas Cowboys. According to Norman, officials warned him that he could face a penalty in the future -- apparently it is close enough to a "machine-gun salute" -- and he decided to test them Sunday against the Cleveland Browns.

Boom. Norman received a 15-yard penalty for what he termed "entertainment."

"The bow and arrow is something to get the crowds and fans into it," Norman said. "We want to have fun with the crowd a little bit. They called me out for it. Now they have me on their list."

Officials have been so focused on the issue that referee Jerome Boger initially penalized Denver Broncos receiver Emmanuel Sanders for performing a cartwheel after a touchdown Sunday.

Boger picked up the flag, however, because Sanders really didn't violate any rule. The celebration wasn't prolonged or excessive. It wasn't sexually suggestive. It had no gyrations. And technically, he didn't "go to the ground" -- another prohibition. Just as a runner isn't down when his hand touches the ground, neither is a celebrator whose hands hit the field during a cartwheel.

(Yes, you just read that sentence in a column about football.)

"This is what it's come to," Daopoulos said. "We call it 'dead-ball officiating,' and it's more important to the league than ever. You have to see what's going on after the play. I don't think it's too much for officials to handle. They just need to know that they need to do it, and clearly they do."

Despite the absurdity and downright silliness of the discussion, I wouldn't count on the NFL bailing on this initiative. Sportsmanship, on the NFL's terms, is among the league's highest 2016 priorities. Fair or not, it will be on the players to adjust their routines and scale back their emotions. Otherwise, this surge of penalties is here to stay.

After all, everyone has standards.

ESPN NFL Nation reporters John Keim and Jeremy Fowler contributed to this story.