Why is taunting a penalty in the NFL? What's the new rule?

No rule in the NFL has stirred up more controversy this season that the taunting rule. But what is it exactly and where does this rule come from?

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Why is taunting a penalty in the NFL? What's the new rule?
Wesley Hitt AFP

The 2021 season has seen 27 taunting calls through week ten and has left many fans wondering where this new rule came from. What has changed between this year and last? Well, nothing. The rule is the same one that has always been in effect. The difference is that it has been made a point of emphasis by the league, meaning that referees are going to throw more flags for it, at the league’s competition committee in August.

“The NFL Players Association, coaches and competition committee have all made a strong statement regarding respect among everyone on the field,” said committee chairman Rich McKay in the league’s video on officiating tweaks for this 2021 season. “We saw an increase in actions that clearly are not within the spirit and intent of this rule is not representative of the respect to opponents and others on the field.”

“That’s something we discuss every year in the competition committee,” according to New York Giants owner John Mara. “We get kind of sick and tired of the taunting that does go on from time to time on the field. 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. It’s just a question of whether you can have rules that can be enforced and without taking the fun out of the game too, but nobody wants to see a player taunting another player. I know, I certainly don’t. I think the rest of the members of the competition committee feel the same way, too.”

JC Tretter, the president of the NFL Players Association wrote, “The majority of fans feel that this is a bad idea – and so do the majority of players. 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.”

Just as surprising as the realization that taunting penalties are nothing new, is finding out when they were first introduced. The referee has always had the option of calling unsportsmanlike conduct for excessive celebration as part of the game. But the first time that taunting an opposing player was specifically banned came in the 1984 off season, when owners unanimously voted to prohibit it, in large part as a response to Mark Gastineau’s sack dance. Opposing players were often infuriated by these antics and the league felt that celebrations like these had gotten out of hand and needed to be reined in for the good of the game.