Every Sunday, I see the same frustrating sequence played out on the gridiron. A player makes a big play, my roommates and I celebrate. Then, a late flag drops onto the field and everyone groans.
Yup, it’s a 15-yard penalty.
What kind of call is this, that can make a great play obsolete? If you are a football fan, you should be able to guess. That’s right: it’s taunting.
Taunting falls under the heading of unsportsmanlike conduct, which in the NFL rulebook is “Any act contrary to the generally understood principles of sportsmanship.”
Well, that isn’t a lot of help. The problem is that what constitutes unsportsmanlike conduct, especially taunting, is too subjective. Also, an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty can change the outcome of a game.
The worst case of unsportsmanlike conduct penalties changing a game’s outcome this season occurred in Week 1. With 29 seconds left, Cleveland took a 39-37 lead over Kansas City on Phil Dawson’s field goal. After the kick, the Browns’ Chris Gardocki was called for taunting. I’m not really sure what Gardocki was bragging about because he was the holder on the kick. What could he have said? “Yeah, laces out.” Anyway, the 15-yard penalty moved back the kickoff and gave the Chiefs good field position. It gets worse.
The Chiefs moved the ball to their own 47. Then, as time expired, quarterback Trent Green was rushed by the Browns’ Dwayne Rudd. Just before he was sacked, Green flipped the ball to his tackle, John Tait, who lugged his 6’6″, 323 pound frame to the Browns’ 25 before being tackled.
Game over, right? Not exactly.
Apparently, Rudd thought he had gotten to Green before he got rid of the ball. Believing the game had ended on his sack, Rudd threw his helmet downfield in celebration. Rudd was flagged for a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. Because a game cannot end on a defensive penalty, the Chiefs’ Morten Andersen got to kick a game-winning field goal.
Ok, taunting and other unsportsmanlike acts are embarrassing for football. It’s bad behavior, and it sets a poor example for younger fans. But it shouldn’t change the outcome of a game.
In other major sports, taunting is not nearly as problematic. In Major League Baseball, players know that if they celebrate too much after a home run, they’ll be hit with a pitch in their next at-bat. NHL players could find themselves in a fight. Meanwhile, NBA players would probably pick up a technical foul for taunting. But this infraction is far less likely to affect the outcome of a game. A technical foul only gives the other team one free-throw, and another offense is needed to warrant the player’s ejection.
One problem with taunting is that it seems to occur on every play. Anybody who watches football is familiar with the celebrations. Players dance after scoring touchdowns, picking up first downs, making a good tackle, or sometimes for no apparent reason. There is clearly an incessant flow of trash-talking throughout the game.
The officials only decide to call a penalty when they feel the degree of unsportsmanlike conduct is too much. In truth, the guidelines are too subjective. Additionally, players are frequently flagged for actions that only occur in response to an opposing player’s actions.
The NFL should change its rules here. The League should review unsportsmanlike conduct plays and fine guilty parties afterward. There is simply too much happening on the field for the officials to witness every unsportsmanlike act or to call them all correctly. The NFL should relieve officials of this responsibility and only review the questionable behavior later.
A League review policy would allow the NFL to fine or suspend players for unsportsmanlike acts, preventing future incidents of bad behavior. Also, the outcome of games would no longer be affected by these 15-yard flags, and my friends and I can finally watch our Sunday games in peace.