Column: Players & Teams Rebel Against NFLOctober 27, 2016
Commissioner Roger Goodell and his minions have never been shy about exercising their authority over players, on and off the field. But this year it has instructed referees to go beyond the limits of sensibility to petty and oppressive levels by flagging players for celebratory gestures. According to ESPN, penalties for unsportsmanlike conduct were up by 56 per cent through the first month of the season and much of the increase was due to excessive celebrations.
Some of the infractions are justified, but many aren’t. For example, the Redskins’ Vernon Davis was flagged for tossing a ball through the goal posts after catching a touchdown pass against the Eagles. His team was penalized 15 yards on the ensuing kickoff and the Eagles’ Wendell Smallwood ran the short kick back 86 yards for a touchdown. The consequences for a moment of fun that didn’t taunt or disrespect an opposing player or team seemed totally disproportionate to the “offense.” Many players have spoken out against the increased enforcement of a rule they believe stifles their emotions and attempts to impose older, white values on their individuality.
Rule 12, Section 3, Article 1 prohibits, among other things, dancing that appears too choreographed, prolonged or sexual and using footballs as a prop, although spiking or spinning the ball is allowed. NFL vice president of officiating Dean Blandino tried to defend the rule, saying, “The bottom line is that there are many, many kids out there that are NFL fans that are playing football and they see our athletes and they mimic what they do, and we wouldn’t some of these things out on the youth football field.” Of course we wouldn’t. Yet it’s apparently OK for those impressionable youths to see half-naked cheerleaders gyrating suggestively on the sidelines and players using their helmets to incapacitate an opponent, a violation that earns the same penalty as Davis’ harmless celebration.
Blandino went on to say that, “…if we let this (excessive celebrations) go, it will continue to build and players will continue to try to outdo each other and then it leads to ‘other things.’” He didn’t elaborate on what ‘other things’ the NFL hierarchy feared. Perhaps he was referring to players having fun while they still had sufficient faculties left to enjoy themselves. One wonders whether the authoritarian attitude towards its players is less about decorum and more about the league trying to show the workers who’s boss. The NFL has historically been permitted to operate in such a manner due to a combination of an ineffectual union and a lack of leadership among the players.
The NFL seemingly has more important issues to address than players having fun and expressing themselves. Ratings are down substantially, the product on the field has been shoddy this year and the referees are making a mockery of games. After 23 penalties were called during the Jets-Cardinals MNF game, ESPN announcer Sean McDonough had seen enough. The frustrated McDonough blurted out on air, “The way this game has been officiated is not something that anyone wants to watch.” Ouch!
But it isn’t just the players who have felt the wrath of Park Avenue. Early in the season the NFL sent a memo to teams reminding them of the prohibition against posting their own video to social media from kickoff to an hour after the game. The purpose of the rule is to protect the league’s media partners and allow them to maximize revenue. Teams on the other hand want to drive fan engagement, one of the goals of social media strategy.
Yet despite fines ranging from $25,000 for a first violation up to $100,000 for a third infraction, several teams have ignored the rule. Others blatantly mock the league’s policy on their websites.
For years the NFL has stood atop the sports industry, in both reputation and economically. But when employees and members alike publicly challenge central authority, perhaps administration should pay attention. Institutions historically crumble from dissatisfaction within, not as a result of external threats. The NFL may wish to take note.