The NFL’s taunting rule, an unfair relic serving nobody and unfair to everyone, achieved the opposite of its intended purpose Monday night.

The NFL emphasized taunting this offseason in part to ensure an unnecessary act outside of play would not taint or overshadow the result of a game. In a taut fourth quarter between the Chicago Bears and Pittsburgh Steelers, an unnecessary taunting flag tainted and overshadowed the result of a game.

Chicago Bears linebacker Cassius Marsh defends during (59) a game against the Steelers on Monday, November 8, 2021 in Pittsburgh. AP Photo/Matt Durisko

It seemed inevitable that the NFL’s misguided taunting emphasis would damage the league at a high-profile moment, and it happened in a 29-27 Steelers victory assisted by a flag nobody wanted or needed. The penalty did not prevent a potential altercation, protect the feelings of an opponent or uphold the delicate sensibilities of fans. It only directly affected a game and indirectly reinforced the NFL’s paternalistic approach to its players.

What we should be talking about Tuesday is the dazzling breakout of Chicago rookie quarterback Justin Fields. What are talking about is the post-sack behavior of journeyman pass rusher Cassius Marsh and the taste in celebration of referee Tony Corrente. We have the NFL’s Crotchety Committee — oh, sorry, Competition Committee — to thank.

With 3:16 left in the fourth quarter and the Steelers holding a 23-20 lead, Marsh sacked Ben Roethlisberger on third down. He celebrated with a leaping, spinning kick. He hopped toward the Pittsburgh sideline and stared, punter Pressley Harvin III trotting into his field of vision. Corrente flagged Marsh for taunting.

“It’s pretty clear to everybody who saw it that I wasn’t taunting,” Marsh said afterward. “I’ve been doing the celebration my whole career.”

“Keep in mind that taunting is a point of emphasis this year,” Corrente said, according to a pool report. “I saw the player, after he made a big play, run toward the bench area of the Pittsburgh Steelers and posture in such a way I felt he was taunting them.”

Bizarrely, Corrente bumped into Marsh just before he tossed his flag, contact Marsh seemed to initiate. Marsh described it as a “hip check” that was “incredibly inappropriate.” Corrente said the contact had “nothing to do with” calling the penalty. (NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy did not immediately respond to a question about the contact between Corrente and Marsh.)

That the penalty occurred at a potentially pivotal moment only amplified the folly of the NFL’s taunting emphasis. The rule is unfair not only to players, but also to the referees tasked with legislating the rule.

NFL players engage in a vicious and emotional job that places their livelihood at risk on every snap. The rules should force players to contain the violence to between snaps. Demanding no verbal or performative spillover is unrealistic and suggests players cannot control themselves, which is why the NFL Players Association has called for the emphasis to be stopped.

Some NFL figures — including Washington Football Team coach Ron Rivera — have said they don’t want the league to serve as a poor example for children. Don’t tell the kids what happens to players’ brains, bones and ligaments between whistles.

Corrente has received vitriol since Monday night, but the taunting emphasis is unfair to him and his brethren, too. The NFL’s picayune rule book is difficult enough to enforce without an inherently arbitrary judgment on what happens after a play.

Countless players have done “worse” than Marsh without drawing a flag. Where does celebration stop and taunting begin? It is a difficult question to answer in the abstract. It is impossible to answer in real time while also determining whether a defender hit the quarterback at the knees or the waist at the head-spinning speed of an NFL game. The NFL has already put too much on officials’ plates, and it keeps adding more.

It’s also unfair to fans, who shouldn’t have to scan the field for flags after every key play wondering how the referee interpreted a celebration.

It would be fair to point out, in a narrow sense, that Marsh isn’t blameless. By looking at the Steelers’ sideline, he placed himself in a gray area. He should have known officials might call taunting even at a pivotal moment — just last Monday night, Giants fullback Elijhaa Penny cost the Giants 15 crucial yards on a fourth quarter drive when he pointed at a Kansas City Chiefs defender.

“Knowing that it’s a major emphasis, we all as coaches and players have got to make sure that you just don’t even put it in the gray area,” Bears coach Matt Nagy said.

But neither Marsh nor fans should have to debate whether he crossed an imaginary line. Marsh’s pose triggered no response from the Steelers, nor did it seem intended to. When the Competition Committee decided to emphasize taunting, some league officials said it wanted to tamp down actions that could escalate into fighting. Want to get rid of fights? Introduce harsh penalties for fighting. Don’t turn your referees into hall monitors.

“We get kind of sick and tired of the taunting that does go on from time to time on the field,” Giants owner John Mara said this summer. “We tried to balance the sportsmanship with allowing the players to have fun, and there’s always a fine line there, but none of us like to see that.”

How did Mara enjoy the end of “Monday Night Football?” Or the resulting backlash from customers?

The NFL waits out controversies, allowing time to correct its mistakes rather than action. When the NFL made pass interference a penalty reviewable by coach’s challenge, the implementation was an immediate disaster. Rather than changing the rule, it waited until the offseason to quietly reverse the policy.

Last month, multiple league officials told The Washington Post’s Mark Maske that the NFL had no plans to change the taunting emphasis. Monday’s episode should change their minds. There is no reason to wait, to risk another game — possibly a playoff game — being altered by a pointless, disputed flag.

If the NFL doesn’t want to mar its games with what happens after the whistle, it should start by changing its own policy.


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