The NFL’s clumsy effort to get game officials to do a better job of doing their jobs when it comes to calling taunting penalties has sparked several news cycles of “No Fun League” criticism. It was completely avoidable.
This isn’t a new rule, or even a new approach. It’s an effort by the league office to get officials to enforce the rules on the books. It should have been explained that way from the get go.
And it’s not about celebrating; that should have been explained, too. In 2017, the league dramatically relaxed the rules regarding celebrations, to widespread praise. (How quickly Twitter forgets.) This is about deliberately directing taunts to an opponent — spiking the ball, spinning the ball, flexing, getting in someone’s face, throwing deuces at a player, etc. The officials had failed in recent years to enforce the rule as written, most notably by not consistently penalizing Tyreek Hill for his trademark taunt.
Given the high stakes of throwing a flag, which shifts 15 yards of field position, it’s understandable that officials would be hesitant. It’s a no-win proposition. Throw the flag and get it right, and you’re an overoficious jerk. Throw the flag and get it wrong, and you’re an overoficious jerk who has potentially affected the game in a major way.
Meanwhile, these are decisions made in real time, based on things that happen in a blink of an eye.
There’s a simple solution, one that the league remains (frankly) too cheap to embrace. Sky judge, booth umpire, whatever the title. An extra official who monitors the TV angles and the replays and who can talk to the on-field officials and tell them either to drop a flag or to pick one up. That’s precisely one of the powers that a booth umpire would have, and it would provide useful backup and cover for the officials on the field.
That’s the only way to get the consistency the league wants when it comes to taunting. It also will help the league avoid taunting becoming a point of emphasis every few years, sparking another wave of unnecessary and preventable criticism.