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Controversy flares over taunting point of emphasis. As always, officials are stuck in the middle

Two weeks in and taunting fouls dominate the NFL officiating world.



This season, the NFL Competition Committee issued a point of emphasis to the game officials instructing them to strictly call a player for taunting — language and actions that disrespect or demean an opponent. The first two weeks of the 2021 season has seen a spike in taunting fouls, leading to an outcry from fans, players, media and other “hot take” artists.

When the NFL issues a point of emphasis — which involves multiple layers of communication with teams, including video — it is up to the coaches and players to adjust. It used to be legal to grasp the face mask. A few years ago, everyone hated the roughing the passer point of emphasis, the players adjusted and things settled down. Times change. Rules change. Points of emphasis change. When the NFL tells the officials to throw the flag on taunting, they throw the flag or they will miss the playoffs or lose their jobs.

The NFL registered 24 ejections in 2020, its fourth consecutive season with at least 20 ejections; since 1982, there have been 4 other seasons with 20 ejections, but none were consecutive.

This isn’t a rule or officiating problem, it is a coaching and discipline problem.

Who wanted this point of emphasis?

In the past two weeks, we have seen confusion over how in sync the Competition Committee and the NFL Players Association actually are on this new taunting point of emphasis.

Atlanta Falcons President and CEO Rich McKay has been the chair of the influential Competition Committee for 24 years. He recently spoke about taunting. He stated that the NFLPA approached the Competition Committee with concerns about taunting, and he said other levels of football want the NFL to address taunting.

First of all, this point of emphasis has nothing to do with the No Fun League. Where people can ding us on the No Fun League is the celebration rules. Taunting is a different thing. Taunting is trying to entice that other player into some type of activity that is not allowed in football. So this year, the first issue brought to us by the NFLPA was that there was too much player-on-player taunting activity, and there was too much in your face. Number 2: we meet with the NCAA every year, and the college coaches in the meeting say, “Hey, when are you guys going to knock down the taunting?”

This statement apparently was news to the NFLPA. In a statement, NFLPA president J.C. Tretter, refuted McKay’s statement.

It is frustrating to read comments like the ones reported last week saying that the NFLPA were the ones who wanted this change. I can assure you, as an attendee of the competition committee meeting myself, that was not the case. On the contrary, we would support the removal of this point of emphasis immediately.

Fans enjoy the intensity and the raw emotion that our players show on the field; and the overwhelming majority of the time, players understand the line between that emotion and bad sportsmanship. For example, some time ago, the league banned the throat slash celebration, which made sense. It was easily enforced and clear to all. But as we saw in a Colts preseason game – and a number of other preseason games – this attempt at controlling “taunting” is going to be a weekly issue that takes away from the spirit of the game.

This year, don’t blame the players who show too much emotion, and cut the refs a break for doing their jobs. Blame the people who push for rules like this time and time again.

Tretter ended his comments asking the fans to let NFL management know how they feel about the point of emphasis.

And, it was nice for him to ask fans to cut the officials a break for enforcing taunting the way the NFL wants is enforced.

So now what?

We now have competing “truths” between the NFLPA and the NFL Competition Committee. The officials answer to management, and management wants taunting enforced.

Sometimes points of emphasis simply fizzle out.

Or, officiating supervisors offer guidance and revision (or revocation) to the officiating staff.

Or, the players will adapt to the point of emphasis, the number of flags will drop and this will be a non-issue by Thanksgiving.

But, the way it stands this week, taunting will be a hot topic as we turn the calendar page to October.

Mark Schultz is a high school football official, freelance writer and journalist. He first became interested in officiating when he was six years old, was watching a NFL game with his father and asked the fateful question, "Dad, what are those guys in the striped shirts doing?"