How NFL referees will judge 'fine line' between taunting and celebration

·6 min read

Only one issue can unite NFL fans in Philadelphia and Dallas, in Cleveland and Pittsburgh, in Chicago and Green Bay.

Decades-old rivalries melt away amid rising frustration over the league’s latest sportsmanship crusade.

The NFL’s offseason directive to crack down on taunting has so far yielded a barrage of penalty flags. Referees have already assessed 10 penalties for taunting during the first two weekends of the NFL season. There were only 10 taunting penalties during the entire 2020 NFL season, per NFLpenalties.com. The league average has been 15.6 per season since 2009.

Last Sunday alone, referees handed out eight taunting penalties, many of which were a result of celebrations that previously wouldn’t have drawn a second look. A Houston tight end hauled in a pass and spun the football in the direction of the opposing bench. A Seattle corner flexed his arms and roared after forcing an incompletion. A Buffalo defensive back flashed an incomplete sign after a pass breakup. A Tampa Bay safety back-pedaled over the goal line after his second fourth-quarter pick-six.

And yet just as perplexing as some of the taunting penalties that were called were some of the ones that weren’t. Lamar Jackson’s theatrical cartwheel into the end zone Sunday night didn’t draw a flag. Nor did Robert Tonyan gesturing and jawing with a Lions defender on Monday night after drawing a pass interference call.

Taunting is listed in the NFL rulebook as one of the causes of an unsportsmanlike conduct foul. The rulebook defines it as “using baiting or taunting acts or words that may engender ill will between teams.” The NFL’s emphasis on stamping out taunting, according to a league source, is not aimed at limiting player celebrations. The key, the source said, is if the act is directed at an opposing player.

In an April conference call with reporters, NFL competition committee chairman Rich McKay explained the impetus behind the new point of emphasis. There is a consensus among coaches and owners, McKay said, that the league has “gotten a little too lax” with how it polices taunting. McKay and other competition committee members would later say that the decline in taunting flags the past two seasons didn't reflect the frequency of taunting that occurred during games.

The issue came to a head in the closing minutes of Super Bowl LV last February when Tampa Bay safety Antoine Winfield Jr. mocked Kansas City’s Tyreek Hill by flashing a peace sign in his direction after successfully defending a fourth-down pass. Winfield later said his gesture was retaliation for Hill throwing up the deuces on his way to the end zone after burning Winfield for a long touchdown during the teams’ regular season matchup.

Antoine Winfield Jr. taunts Tyreek Hill during the fourth quarter in Super Bowl LV. (Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
Antoine Winfield Jr. taunts Tyreek Hill during the fourth quarter in Super Bowl LV. (Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

"All of us, to a man, acknowledged that this is something that needed to be addressed," Pittsburgh Steelers coach and competition committee member Mike Tomlin told reporters on Tuesday. "That’s why it’s a point of emphasis. That’s why none of us are surprised at the number of calls in terms of them being increased." 

The NFL’s point of emphasis puts officiating crews in the unwanted position of having to be the fun police. The league is requiring that they apply a stricter standard when assessing what is taunting and what isn’t.

“What we’re trying to do is allow players to enjoy and celebrate without showing up an opposing player,” retired NFL official Jeff Triplette told Yahoo Sports. Triplette described it as a judgment call, admitting there is often a “fine line” between celebration and taunting and lamenting that today’s officiating crews now have been burdened with yet another difficult task.

“It’s tough enough out there to officiate the plays itself because it’s so fast and the players are so talented,” Triplette said. “Worrying about this is really one of the last things you want to have to do.”

Triplette and fellow retired referee Terry McAulay agreed the application of the point of emphasis has sometimes been inconsistent. They both agreed with the non-call on Jackson’s flip over the goal line because it wasn’t directed at an opponent. On the other hand, they both disagreed with the taunting penalty assessed to Tampa Bay’s Mike Edwards for turning toward his opponents and backpedaling into the end zone.

“There were no hand or body gestures to indicate it was a taunting action directed at an opponent,” McAulay told Yahoo Sports. “Had he pointed, or ‘deuces up’ or something similar, then that would be foul based on my understanding of the guidance. Simply backing into the end zone is not a foul from the guidance we were given.”

If the NFL’s goal was to get the attention of its players by cracking down on taunting, it’s clear the league has succeeded in that. NFL Players Association president JC Tretter wrote in a blog post earlier this month that the majority of players opposed the taunting point of emphasis because it “takes away from the spirit of the game.”

“Fans enjoy the intensity and the raw emotion that our players show on the field,” the Cleveland Browns center wrote, “and the overwhelming majority of the time, players understand the line between that emotion and bad sportsmanship.”

There’s also abundant evidence after this weekend that the taunting emphasis is on the minds of NFL coaches. Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh admitted with a smile that he briefly feared that Jackson might draw a penalty for chucking the ball high in the air after his fourth-quarter flip into the end zone.

“Of course I went like — is that legal?” Harbaugh said Monday. “It's not taunting, is it?"

Seattle is one of two NFL teams hit with a pair of taunting penalties already this season. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said Monday that he respects the intent of the point of emphasis yet worries that the NFL has “opened up a bit of a can of worms.”

“It’s the reaction of the player in the moment that we have to train,” Carroll said. “You’ve got a lot of guys who have to deal with those explosive moments. They have to turn their focus away from the opponent. It’s a good thought, but it’s hard to manage.”

How long the NFL’s taunting crackdown lasts will likely depend on how quickly players alter their behavior.

“If players adapt — and I have confidence they will — then it won’t have any impact on the rest of the season whatsoever,” Triplette said.

McAulay, too, expects the flurry of taunting penalties to decrease, not because the enforcement of the rule relaxes but because players learn to violate it less frequently.

“The high-level direction from the Competition Committee was quite definitive and clear,” McCaulay said. “That direction is that officials are to strictly enforce the taunting rule. It’s always possible they may backtrack somewhat, but normally that doesn’t occur.”