On a random afternoon this spring, after he finished announcing the NFL's rule change proposals for 2021, competition committee chairman Rich McKay paused for an aside. There would only be two points of emphasis on existing rules, McKay said during a call with reporters, and one of them was the annual focus on lowering the helmet to initiate contact. The other, he said, would be for taunting.
McKay took pains to describe this effort as a targeted strike against player-to-player words or acts that "engender ill will between teams," as has long been encoded in the NFL rule book. It would not focus on celebrations, as a similar point of emphasis did in 2016, according to McKay. A group of coaches, through the NFL coaches subcommittee, had simply advanced their belief that enforcement of the existing rule had grown "too lax" in recent years, McKay said.
From that modest start has sprouted one of the league's early-season trends. Officials identified taunting as the impetus for eight unsportsmanlike conduct flags in Week 2, tying for the most in any week since at least the 2000 season. (Caveat: Referees do not always specify "taunting" in their announcements for such fouls, so there could have been additional flags in recent years.) Overall, there have been 11 taunting flags in the first two weeks of the season, one short of the most in Weeks 1-2 since 2000, which is as far back as the ESPN Stats & Information database goes.
Let's look deeper into what has happened and where it is likely to go this season.
What exactly are we talking about with taunting?
One of the causes for an unsportsmanlike conduct foul, according to the rule book, is "[u]sing baiting or taunting acts or words that may engender ill will between teams."
In practical terms, that could mean something as simple as spinning the ball at a player from another team or calling him a mean name. It includes "getting in the face" of an opponent, turning around to face him while running free for a touchdown or making a hand signal after beating him on a play. In short, "taunting" is anything that could prompt a similar response from the other guy, potentially escalating into a physical post-whistle confrontation.
Seems harmless for such an emotional game. Who actually cares about it?
Owners and coaches -- and they make the rules.
"We get kind of sick and tired of the taunting that does go on from time to time on the field," said New York Giants owner John Mara, who is a member of the competition committee. "We [try] to balance the sportsmanship with allowing the players to have fun, and there's always a fine line there, but none of us like to see that."
While it would be easy to pin the blame on owners, the sentiment extends to many coaches, including those who are former players.
"I don't like taunting," Indianapolis Colts coach and former backup quarterback Frank Reich told The Rich Eisen Show this summer. "I mean, I love the fire of competition. I want to dominate the opponent in every way -- physically, mentally, on the scoreboard. I want to embarrass them. We want to destroy the opponent. We want to shut every opponent out. We want to score 50 and have them not score any. But we don't have to taunt. Taunting ... doesn't look good on anybody. It's not a good look. It's not a good thing for young kids to see. I just don't think that's what this game is about."
If this rule is already on the books, why do they have to emphasize it this season?
Flags for taunting dropped noticeably the past two seasons. There was a total of 11 in 2020 and nine in 2019, following an average of 30 from 2013-18. In the opinion of coaches and owners, however, that dip did not reflect a corresponding fall in the frequency of taunting they saw over those two seasons.
In many ways, the issue came to a head after seeing Tampa Bay Buccaneers safety Antoine Winfield Jr. mock Kansas City Chiefs receiver Tyreek Hill with a peace sign during Super Bowl LV. Winfield later said the taunt was in retaliation for Hill making a similar hand gesture toward the Buccaneers during a matchup in the regular season. Hill was not penalized for the original infraction, but Winfield was penalized and fined for his.
Were players warned that this was coming?
Yes. All players are presented with a league video in training camp that explains new rules and points of emphasis.
Did the NFL tell them they would be calling some really ticky-tacky fouls?
Not directly, but whether we like it or not, that's how the NFL endeavors to change player behavior -- by asking officials to call anything remotely close. It's like erecting a force field around even the possibility of a taunt.
"Players have been told through the tapes from the league office: Do not create acts that make someone try to figure out what your intent was," said ESPN officiating analyst John Parry. "Don't make the officials make a judgment on whether it is or is not unsportsmanlike conduct."
Aren't there any other ways to change player behavior than by over-officiating regular-season games?
Yes, but it would require a significant change in the way the NFL's officiating department works training camps. Parry has suggested a significant boost to the two or three days that officials usually spend with teams in training camps. Working with players and coaches over a span of several weeks, for instance, could educate them and set a tone in an organic way that doesn't impact any games, be it preseason or in the regular season.
Players can't possibly like the way it is now, can they?
No. NFL Players Association president JC Tretter, in fact, wrote in a blog post: "This year, don't blame the players who show too much emotion, and cut the refs a break for doing their jobs. Blame the people who push for rules like this time and time again."
What are the 2021 fines for taunting?
Players who are penalized for taunting can be fined up to $10,300 on a first offense. The fine for a second offense is $15,450. They have the right to appeal, and sometimes those fines are reduced or eliminated based on the severity of the infraction or other mitigating circumstances.
What will happen now?
People will freak out, resurrect the "No Fun League" memes and claim that officials have ruined the game.
Will the NFL give them reason to stop?
Most likely. If history is any guide, the frequency of taunting flags will decrease over the course of the season -- and probably sooner than later. The 2016 point of emphasis resulted in 12 such flags in the first two weeks and an additional 26 over the next 15. There has been more than 38 flags thrown for taunting only once in the past two decades, when a 2004 point of emphasis led to 53.
So this is a short-term issue?
By all accounts, yes. Players will make adjustments, as will officials once the NFL determines that the point has been made. By the end of the season, in all likelihood, this episode will largely be forgotten.