- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 19, 2021

ASHBURN — Antonio Gibson says he’s not really much of a taunter. But there was something about last year’s Thanksgiving showcase — the game when the Washington running back scored three touchdowns — that caused Gibson to wave goodbye to the trailing Cowboys defender as he raced to the end zone with ease.  

The running back says he went for the stiff arm, only to realize there was no one near him. 

“It just happened,” he said. 

If the play happened a year later, the wave could have very well been a penalty. 

The NFL is cracking down on taunting this season — with league officials told to strictly enforce rules on the books aimed at limiting “abusive, threatening or insulting language or gestures” toward players. The points of emphasis include issuing automatic ejections for two violations of the rule. 

The change, to some, harkens back to the long-running idea that the NFL stands for the“No Fun League.” That was only further solidified this week when New York Giants owner John Mara, who’s on the league’s competition committee, said the league got “sick and tired of the taunting” and that “nobody wants to see a player taunting another player.” Mara’s comments not only generated headlines like this: “The NFL’s taunting rules solidify how old men are ruining football” but also strong backlash from star players like the New Orleans Saints’ Alvin Kamara and the Kansas City Chiefs’ Tyrann Mathieu.

On Twitter, Kamara replied using a corn emoji, a leg emoji and the words “as helllll.” Mathieu wrote, “So shut up and play? Got it.” in a now-deleted tweet.

“Honestly I wanna ‘taunt’ juhh to see how far I can take it before I get a flag…” Kamara tweeted.

Mara argued there’s a “fine line” between celebrating and actively baiting an opponent. According to Yahoo Sports, the NFL’s competition committee was moved to reinforce the taunting rules specifically because of one play in the Super Bowl: Tampa Bay safety Antoine Winfield Jr threw up a peace sign in the final moments of the Buccaneers’ victory — mocking the Chiefs receiver’s signature celebration. Winfield’s act drew a flag at the time and he was later fined, but it left a mark on the committee. 

Washington coach Ron Rivera, one of nine members on the committee, said Wednesday that the rule is in place to prevent “escalation” from prior plays. He pointed to a game last year in which a number of wide receivers and defensive backs got into a fight because of previous taunting, likely referring to a Week 8 skirmish between the Saints and the Chicago Bears. Chicago’s Javon Wims got ejected for punching New Orleans’ Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, though the strike led to a midfield skirmish.

The bad blood between the teams carried over into the playoffs, when receiver Anthony Miller was thrown out for punching Gardner-Johnson, who reportedly poked Miller through his face mask. 

“That’s not a good look for any sport, let alone football, and somebody’s going to get hurt and you just don’t want that,” Rivera said. “And that’s why they’re doing it. That’s what the emphasis (is about). That’s why everybody’s just got to relax, calm down. …  Quite honestly, we don’t need the young people to see that. 

“We don’t need the Pop Warner, peewee football kids seeing us act like that. We want to put it out there as professionally as possible.”

According to the New York Times, the NFL had eased up on penalizing players for taunting in recent years. After averaging 24 taunting flags per year from 2013 to 2018, the NFL issued just 10 in 2020 and nine in 2019. In 2017, the NFL started to allow more expansive celebrations that gave players permission to use the ball as a prop and do other creative gestures, like coordinated dance routines. 

So far in the preseason, the league’s referees have seemed to carry out the new points of emphasis — but not everyone has agreed with the calls. Last week, Colts running back Benny LeMay was called for taunting after running through a pile, turning his head to the defender still on the ground and… throwing the ball to his side. 

A 15-yard penalty. More backlash.

“So we can’t show emotion?” Seahawks wide receiver Tyler Lockett tweeted.

“Totally soft,” former lineman Geoff Schwartz wrote. “My man just took an entire mass of humans 10 yards and is fired up. What a joke.”

“No Fun League back in action!” Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan tweeted.

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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