Protecting or Taking Away the Fun? 

By Eric Vallen

According to the NFL Rulebook, taunting in game is defined by, “using baiting or taunting acts or words that may engender ill will between teams.” Clearly, rulemakers used overly general wording while making this rule, as the feasibility of explicitly stating the illegality of each and every possible celebration performed by a player in violation of this rule is simply out of the question. However, due to the generalizing nature of this rule, interpretation is left up to league officials, leading to many conflicting situations in the league today.

Acknowledging the taunting rule, players in the league have molded their celebrations, as the culture and rules of the game evolve. Prime examples of this phenomena are, the rise and fall of Desean Jackson-style showboating at the goal line, Deion Sanders high stepping, and the infamous Tyreek Hill peace sign. Conversely, this year, instead of outlawing a specific type of celebration as taunting, the NFL has decided to instead crack down on taunting in general. The league’s definition of taunting has not changed per se, however previously legal celebrations have now been receiving flags; causing uproar amongst players and fans alike.

As of October 5th, several egregious calls have been made against players taking actions loosely associated with “taunting”, including a 15 yard penalty on a 21 yard reception for the Raider’s TE Darren Waller, the same penalty for Chargers receiver Keenan Allen on an 11 yard reception, and Texan TE Jordan Atkins on a 13 yard reception. It’s almost second nature to these players to celebrate on a big play, yet the League and officials are penalizing them for it. To compound the problem, legislation on taunting outlines that only two violations of the rule are cause enough to disqualify a player from the game; cause for concern among players due to the increased volume of taunting calls this year. 

Although the rules are unchanged on paper, referees have officiated through Week 4 of the season as if the majority of common celebrations are now illegal, which has ramifications on the game and the culture surrounding it. Certain groups of fans had already been donning the league the moniker of the “No Fun League” before this year’s season. However, as of October 5th, the name has picked up much more traction among fans due to the objectively unnecessary volume of taunting calls. Players have reason to voice their outrage as well, as yes, although their actions technically do cross the now extended line of taunting under the new interpretation of the rule, the actions they take almost never “engender ill will” between their respective teams. Darren Waller was flagged for simply spiking the ball, a move so common that a player who found themselves offended by it would likely be widely humiliated by the football community for even trying to confront the player who spiked the ball. Jordan Atkins committed the egregious offense of spinning the ball on the ground, something that a player can, and has, done accidentally, while simply letting go of the football after the play is called dead. Considering these and other instances, fans and players alike have spoken on the changes implemented to the rule, calling them a “disaster,” and “disruptive to the nature of the game.” Looking back upon previous NFL rule changes, the rule is likely to stay for at least a year, unless it is absolutely an obstacle to the playing of the game. Therefore, for at least for the ongoing 2021-2022 NFL season, fans and players will have to deal with limited celebration on the field.