Even if you believe that Odell Beckham Jr.’s tendency toward emotional outbursts has rightfully earned him extra scrutiny from NFL referees, the unsportsmanlike conduct penalty he was hit with last night was pretty confounding:
A needless 15-yard penalty isn’t likely to swing the outcome of a game on its own, but the NFL has instituted a new rule that requires a player who has received two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties in one game to be ejected from that game. This rule would itself not be a big problem if unsportsmanlike conduct penalties were rarely called, but so far this season it seems like referees are going out of their way to flag players for the slightest provocations.
It’s not just Beckham Jr. who is getting extra attention. Cam Newton was hit with a taunting penalty on Sunday for doing the exact same celebratory move he did dozens of times last season; Antonio Brown draws a flag every time his butt twitches; Josh Norman found out that you can’t even shoot an imaginary bow and arrow in peace anymore; Trai Turner got dinged for jumping; Terrelle Pryor was penalized for paying homage to LeBron James. The list goes on.
You’ll notice that the thing uniting all the players listed above is that they are talented and entertaining players, which is to say they are not the kind of players any NFL fan wants to see ejected from an important game simply because they sometimes get too mad or too happy while playing a violent contact sport. At some point this season, a player of great importance is going to be sent into the locker room for having fun while playing football, and it’s going to suck for all of us.
The catalyst for Roger Goodell siccing his anti-fun squad on the league was, of course, the MMA match that broke out between Beckham Jr. and Norman last season. Two players trying to beat the hell out of each other during a game is obviously bad, but trying to prevent such incidents in the future by threatening to eject anyone who shows the slightest bit of emotion on the field speaks to the NFL’s continued and blockheaded insistence on using a broadsword to fix problems that might require a scalpel.
And that sword always, always manages to fall on the players. Goodell seems to be convinced that every problem plaguing the NFL can be solved via a stronger application of discipline against the guys on the field. This is how you end up with a league that believes concussion-inducing hits are the result of players with sinister motivations, and can thus be legislated out of the game through a scattershot application of penalties. This is how you end up with a league that sincerely believes preventing players from dancing or being rude after a touchdown will also prevent them from trying to hurt their opponents. This is how you end up with a league that seems to be committed to making the product on the field as bad as possible.