When Andrew Hawkins of the Cleveland Browns caught a touchdown pass against the New England Patriots in Week 5, his reaction was unexpected. He came to a stop, then stiffly placed the ball on the turf and robotically walked away.
The mechanical performance, Hawkins later acknowledged, was in response to the NFL’s growing crackdown on what it considers to be excessive celebrations. The clampdown has annoyed many fans, who have trotted out the old criticism of the NFL as the “No Fun League.” And it has raised charges of inconsistent enforcement.
“Everything you do gets fined nowadays, right?” Hawkins told Cleveland.com. “Me seeing the tape of what not to do – and I get it, rules are rules – but I thought it would be funny to do that and troll the whole situation, so that’s what I did.”
Celebration penalties are up sharply this season. The league says it has not changed its rules but has made excessive celebration a “point of emphasis,” essentially asking officials to pay extra attention to enforcing the existing rules.
And that has meant the flags, and fines, are flying.
Antonio Brown of the Pittsburgh Steelers was penalized and fined in Week 1 for twerking after a touchdown and again in Week 4 for a pelvis thrust. (Brown’s moves were more appreciated earlier this year when he finished in the top five on “Dancing With the Stars.”)
Josh Norman of the Washington Redskins drew a penalty and a fine for miming shooting a bow and arrow, although Tom Brady eluded punishment on his return to the game for a similar arms-in-the-air gesture.
And the old standbys are still being enforced rigidly: Vernon Davis of the Redskins was flagged for shooting the ball through the uprights like a jump shot after a touchdown Sunday.
Odell Beckham Jr. was penalized for taking off his helmet on the field late in the New York Giants’ game Sunday.
ESPN reported after Week 4 that taunting calls were up 220 percent, and unsportsmanlike penalties were up 56 percent.
Dean Blandino, the NFL’s senior vice president for officiating, responded to some of the criticism with an explanatory video for media and teams this month.
“The rule hasn’t changed in terms of what is and what isn’t taunting,” he said, insisting that “we’re not trying to legislate emotion out of the game.”
He said that “anything that mimics a violent act” and “anything that mimics weaponry” would be an automatic penalty. This explains why Norman’s bow and arrow by Norman was penalized whereas Brady’s move, which was interpreted as a tribute to sprinter Usain Bolt’s celebratory lightning-bolt celebratory gesture, was OK. Lightning bolts have not been regularly used as weapons since Zeus.
“I have my reasons as to why I shoot it, too, you know?” Norman said last week on 106.7 The Fan radio in Washington. “And I think everybody has a justified reason, and our reason is not to hurt nobody or to demonstrate that we’re trying to shoot something.”
Brandin Cooks of the New Orleans Saints’ own bow-and-arrow gesture has eluded penalties.
“The reason for why I’m doing it and what’s behind why I’m doing it doesn’t have anything to do with violence,” he told The Times-Picayune. He has said it is a reference to the archery skills of Abraham’s son Ishmael in the Book of Genesis.
No dirty dancing, guys
Whether dancing draws a foul depends on the nature of the dance.
“When it’s sexually suggestive, that’s a penalty,” Blandino said.
A celebration in general crosses the line “if it’s choreographed, if it’s excessive, if it’s prolonged.”
The NFL video shows Victor Cruz of the Giants dancing after a touchdown against the Dallas Cowboys.
“The salsa dance is fine,” Blandino said. “But then when his teammate comes and takes the Polaroid picture, that’s a choreographed demonstration.”
Blandino said he thought letting colorful celebrations slide could lead to a slippery slope.
“Believe me, if we let this go it will continue to build and players will continue to try to outdo each other,” he said. “It leads to altercations.”
Still, Blandino hastened to point out that many gestures and celebrations were acceptable. The NFL rule book says that “players are prohibited from engaging in any celebrations or demonstrations while on the ground.” But Blandino said,”Prayer is not a foul.”
He also assured viewers, “Hugs are always legal.”
Rule 12 Section 3 Article 1 of the rule book specifies a two-tier system for celebration penalties. Some actions are expressly forbidden, including “throat slash; machine-gun salute; sexually-suggestive gestures; prolonged gyrations; or stomping on a team logo.”
Another list forbids activities only if they are directed at an opponent: “Sack dances; home run swing; Incredible Hulk; spiking the ball; spinning the ball; throwing or shoving the ball; pointing; pointing the ball; verbal taunting; military salute; standing over an opponent (prolonged and with provocation); or dancing.”
Carlos Hyde of the San Francisco 49ers was assessed a taunting penalty after flexing at some Arizona Cardinals players. If his flexing had occurred a few feet away, it probably would have been legal.
The NFL sees itself as setting a good example.
“There are many many kids out there that are NFL fans, who are playing football and they see our athletes and they mimic what they do,” Blandino said.
Blandino said he did not expect the torrent of penalties to continue.
“Fouls go up initially, and then as the players start to regulate their behavior and they understand where the bar is, we start to see the foul numbers go down,” he said.
League sends mixed message on social media
Despite trying to stamp out the more flamboyant celebrations, the NFL has not been especially hesitant to promote them on social media. A video celebrating the “top 10 celebrations” on NFL.com includes several that might seem likely to draw a flag, including Rams players gathering around a spinning ball and Chad Johnson performing “Riverdance.” But the league may have shown its preferences by choosing as the No. 1 all-time celebration Barry Sanders scoring a touchdown, then not celebrating.
The NFL’s list includes an appearance by the acknowledged master of the celebration, Terrell Owens, who last played in 2010. Owens pulled a marker from his sock and autographed the ball after a score. He grabbed and shook a cheerleader’s pompom, dumped a container of popcorn on himself and slammed a ball on the opposing Cowboys logo at midfield. That last one led to his being decked by Cowboys safety George Teague.
The Golden Age of NFL celebrations is also remembered for Ickey Woods’ dance, the Ickey Shuffle, in the late 1980s; Deion Sanders’ regularly starting celebrations before he even reached the end zone in the mid-1990s; and Johnson’s performing a variety of stunts, notably donning a jacket inaccurately proclaiming him – at least so far – a future Pro Football Hall of Famer in 2007.
In the current NFL climate, shows like these are likely to be rare, and costly. Get used to seeing celebrations more like Hawkins’ and Sanders’ and less like Owens’ in the weeks ahead.