NFL’s taunting rule isn’t working as it was advertised, says Saints coach Sean Payton

·3 min read

There probably aren’t many coaches less pleased with the state of NFL officiating right now than Sean Payton. Beyond the Super Bowl berth a botched pass interference call helped take from his team a few years ago, league referees’ public rebellion to his proposed rule change intended to clean up their mistakes, and the game-changing interception his defense lost to a bogus roughing the passer foul last Sunday, he’s got little positive things to say about the zebras taking up too much time on game broadcasts each week.

“Everyone watching and participating deserves better,” Payton said during a Thursday appearance on the Dan Patrick Show. He added that he still can’t understand why no referees and the members of their officiating crews are full-time NFL employees, a point he’s railed about for years. When they aren’t deciding how a billion-dollar industry is unfolding, they’re busy in the offseason working day jobs as high school teachers and managing their dentistry practices instead of brushing up on the rulebook and getting better at their craft.

In particular, Payton expressed frustration with how the NFL’s new emphasis on its taunting rule has played out. He recently stepped down from the league’s competition committee, declining to elaborate on his reasons at the time so that he wouldn’t draw a fine from the NFL head office. But he may have tipped his hand in this Dan Patrick Show interview.

“I think it’s being over-officiated. I sat in on the discussion, and I don’t think any of us who discussed it saw it going where it is now,” Payton said, reflecting on the presentations used to sell him and other competition committee members on approving the new point of emphasis against taunting. “If you and I watch a game and we, say, sit next to each other and turn to each other and say ‘taunting,’ (after a play) that’s a taunting foul. And we would see it and can say that’s too much, you can’t do that.”

But he pointed out there’s the problem — a breakdown in communication between various officiating crews across the league, where some flag-throwers are fouling players for picking fights while others see a player glance at the opposing sideline and call it a penalty. As with the roughing the passer foul, Payton reasoned, there’s no consistency in how the taunting rule is being applied. Making officials full-time employees and focusing their attention at doing their jobs well could help fix that.

This is something the NFL could correct, but it’s choosing not to. The league could very easily take a fraction of the billions in profits it rakes in every year and make everyone refereeing a game a full-time employee, then send them to months of film study and workshops in the offseason to get more consistency out of their very important decisions. They could listen to the suggestion from Payton and his peers across the league who have called for a “sky judge” to be implemented as another official who could double-check those calls and non-calls.

But the NFL is cheap, and also lazy, or at best complacent. It starts at the top with league commissioner Roger Goodell who has said before that he and NFL ownership value the human element their referees’ mistakes bring to the game, saying that “The game is not officiated by robots. It’s not going to be.”

Goodell has also said that, “Our officials work incredibly hard, and the reality is they do a great job. But they’re going to miss calls,” and that’s just something fans and coaches and players have to live with. There’s no will at the top of the organization to fix the problems with officiating; if anything, Goodell and the people signing his paycheck are willfully ignorant about the situation. So all fans can do is complain online, and all Payton and his frustrated peers can do is complain to the media.