Column: End the NFL’s war of emotional suppression

Denver Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak talks with referee Clete Blakeman (34) prior to an NFL preseason football game against the Arizona Cardinals, Thursday, Sept. 1, 2016, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

Lost in the usual blur of surprising outcomes, fantasy worries and running back injuries this past NFL Sunday was a truly unbelievable moment of officiating.

It came in the game between the Cleveland Browns and the Baltimore Ravens, after Browns wide receiver Terrelle Pryor grabbed a 20-yard pass with 27 seconds left and scooted out of bounds at the Baltimore 10-yard line. Cleveland trailed 25-20 at the time of the catch, so the play by Pryor was crucial to their comeback hopes.

Not so fast. After Pryor made the grab, he looked to toss the ball underhanded back to the official, but instead his toss hit Ravens cornerback Lardarius Webb on the helmet. Innocent mistake, right? A look at the tape makes that quite obvious. The official didn’t think so, however, slapping Pryor with a 15-yard taunting penalty that killed the Browns’ drive and indirectly led to another Cleveland loss.

Now, to be fair, I will admit that it is possible that Pryor intended to hit Webb with his little toss. But even the most volatile of wide receiver personalities would likely be aware of the game situation after making that catch, and realize that picking up a taunting penalty would be an impossibly stupid move.

It ultimately doesn’t matter, because the officials have the final say, and this year they have been ridiculously quick to hand out nonsense penalties. Even for the NFL, which has been mocked with the ‘No Fun League’ moniker more times than I can count, this year has been out of control. Pryor’s penalty is just the latest in a series of laughable calls after the play.

In another game this week, Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Marcus Peters made a play to prevent Houston Texans wide receiver Will Fuller from making a touchdown catch inbounds. Peters then briefly wagged his finger in the direction of Fuller, the same way the NBA legend Dikembe Mutombo used to do after he would swat away shots. Out came the taunting flag, bringing with it 15 free yards and a first down for the Texans.

How dare you, Mr. Peters. How dare you perform a minor physical taunt after making a big play against the guy you’ve been battling physically and psychologically, and will continue to battle for the remainder of the game. We’d much rather you keep your taunting verbal, thank you very much.

I mean, come on. Under no circumstances was that particular move by Peters worthy of that penalty. The duel between a wide receiver and a cornerback is extremely contentious, because of the nature of the game’s physicality and the stakes of every single route. If you’re going to let them play, allowing the two players to grab and tug without calling pass interference, then let the cornerback throw a quick finger wag after a big play. When the receiver makes the play and hauls in a touchdown, they are allowed dances far more flamboyant than a simple finger wag.

Of course, the NFL may be quick to rain on your celebratory parade, as well. Last week, New York Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz pulled down a touchdown pass late in a game against the Dallas Cowboys to give New York the lead. Cruz, who was playing in his first NFL game since Oct. 12, 2014, when he tore his patellar tendon leaping for a ball, broke out his trademark salsa dance to celebrate, which was fine. Heartwarming, even.

Man it feels good to be back. God is the greatest. 📸: @iam_objxiii

A photo posted by Victor Cruz (@teamvic) on

What was not fine, in the eyes of the officials and the NFL, was what fellow Giants receiver Odell Beckham did during the dance. Beckham got down on one knee and pantomimed taking a photo of the salsa, to commemorate its return as a symbol of the full recovery Cruz had made from his devastating knee injury. No flag was thrown, but the two players were fined $12,124 each by the NFL a few days later for participating in a group celebration.

I hope your cathartic first dance back was worth it, Victor. Odell, that’s one less expensive night out with Drake at The Boy’s favorite nightclub. When you try the NFL with a sorry choreographed celebration like that one, a healthy fine is the result you’re going to get.

Meanwhile in backwards world, Eric Decker and Michael Johnson were fined smaller amounts for legitimately dangerous actions: in this case, unnecessary roughness and roughing the passer, respectively. It doesn’t make any sense.

Why is the NFL so stubborn regarding emotional acts of the game like taunting and celebrating? Those actions are what the fans want to see. We love the competition like the players do. I have nothing against class acts who want nothing more than to score touchdowns and hand the ball directly to the official, but the reason we’re so fascinated with more expressive players is because they are unafraid to show their personalities, and it’s intriguing to watch how those personalities get tangled up in the frenetic nature of an important game. They give fans stories to talk about, and more reasons to tune in.

By continuing to hand out flags and fines like candy on Halloween, the NFL will eventually suppress these personalities, and in turn kill off one of the most marketable aspects of their highly profitable product. That doesn’t seem like a wise decision.

Ideally, the NFL would pull back a little on the flags and the fines, and allow a surge of fun to rush back into professional football. That would be great. Unfortunately, with the league’s current leadership in place, we’ll likely see this trend continue further.


Tyler Keating is associate sports editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at tyler.keating@uconn.edu.