Toward the end of Washington’s victory over Cleveland on Sunday, Skins cornerback Josh Norman intercepted a pass and was penalized for taunting. Norman’s infraction? As referee Jeff Triplette memorably intoned, it was 15 yards for “shooting a bow and arrow.”

A few hours later, during the Sunday Night Football intro featuring that shitty Carrie Underwood song, the highlight montage promoting that night’s matchup included a clip of Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce ... shooting a bow and arrow.

Confused? You should be! The NFL is experimenting with a rule change this season that’s designed to crack down on taunting, something nobody asked for in the first place. But just like it did with the catch rule, the league is over-legislating something to the point of confusion.

We’re well past the point in which the NFL has shown it has little-to-no tolerance for fun and human emotion in its violent, emotional game. Group celebrations, choreographed celebrations, or using the ball, the pylon, the goalposts, or any foreign objects to celebrate have long been banned. But now no one can seem to agree on what actually constitutes taunting or a celebration, and which displays are worthy of flags and which aren’t. And on at least one occasion, the questionable application of the new rule has affected the outcome of a game. Which is just so NFL.

Let’s start with the actual rule change (emphasis mine):

The owners also voted to amend two rules changes to be implemented on a trial basis for one year only. The Competition Committee and the owners will re-examine these rules after the season and determine if they should be made permanent or further modified.

In 2016:

  • A player who is penalized twice in one game for certain types of unsportsmanlike conduct fouls will be disqualified. The types of fouls are:
  • Throwing a punch or forearm, or kicking at an opponent, even if no contact is made
  • Using abusive, threatening or insulting language or gestures toward opponents, teammates, officials or league representatives
  • Using baiting or taunting acts or words that engender ill will between teams.

Falling under the rubric of unsportsmanlike conduct, taunting is a 15-yard penalty, and when it’s called the first time against a player in a game, the referee has usually made a point of announcing to the crowd and the broadcast audience that a subsequent infraction of that kind will result in an ejection. The main consequence of the new rule is that officials seem to be looking for taunting and seeing it everywhere, leading opponents to intentionally bait specific players like Odell Beckham into drawing questionable flags.

Because the league’s official stat books don’t always delineate between taunting and other types of unsportsmanlike conduct, it’s not clear exactly how many taunting penalties have been called this season. Through Week 4, has the number at 12, but ESPN had the total at 10 after just Week 2. Either way, given that ESPN has also reported that there were 24 taunting penalties called during all of last year’s regular season, it’s safe to say the taunting numbers are way up this year—and on at least one occasion, a player has been kicked out for running afoul of the new rules twice in one game.


That ejected player was Giants center Weston Richburg, whose two infractions in Week 3 were for arguing a holding call—a hot mic on the field captured Richburg yelling, “That’s fucking bullshit!” after the flag for holding was thrown—and then for allegedly saying some mean things to Josh Norman after a play in which Norman got torched by Odell Beckham. Before that game, officials met with both head coaches and with Norman and Beckham to inform them a “zero-tolerance policy” would govern any bad behavior that day—a fact Beckham later confirmed when he spoke to reporters. The officials obviously wanted to fend off a repeat of last year’s nasty Beckham-Norman feud, which did get dangerous. (Beckham vs. Norman is the impetus for this year’s two-strikes-and-you’re-out experiment.) But Richburg’s first infraction was not followed by any kind of public warning from referee John Hussey. And it’s insane to think that what Richburg did—in a league marked by players and coaches who constantly and vociferously question the officials, and by players who frequently talk shit to one another—merited an ejection. But this is how arbitrarily and ambiguously the league is policing player behavior right now. And it’s far from the only example.

What constitutes taunting, anyway? In Week 1, Panthers guard Trai Turner (No. 70) celebrated an early Kelvin Benjamin touchdown against the Broncos by repeatedly jumping up and down:

Turner’s actions drew both a penalty and a $9,115 fine, as laid out by the league’s fine schedule. It appears that what got Turner in trouble was the fact that he was celebrating too close to Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. (No. 25), making it a taunt. But was that Turner’s intention? To the NFL, it didn’t seem to matter.


Also in Week 1, Steelers wideout Antonio Brown got pinched for twerking after a TD. Brown’s action violated the rules in two places—as taunting, and as excessive celebration. (Because of course the rule book [at 12.3.1(c)(4)] legislates specific types of dancing.)

Violations of (c) will be penalized if any of the acts occur anywhere on the field. These acts include, but are not limited to: throat slash; machine-gun salute; sexually-suggestive gestures; prolonged gyrations; or stomping on a team logo.

What constitutes a “sexually-suggestive” gesture? Apparently whatever Brown did after scoring his second touchdown Sunday night against the Chiefs also qualified, because he got flagged again:

Never mind that this is the same Antonio Brown whose dancing is highlighted every week as part of that same SNF theme song video I mentioned earlier:

Care to know what did not amount to a “sexually-suggestive” maneuver, at least based on the fact that it did not draw a flag? Jerick McKinnon’s sack-grabbing act last night during Monday Night Football.

Here’s another good one: Marcus Peters of the Chiefs finger-wagging Texans wideout Will Fuller in Week 2. It happened after Fuller caught a long pass on Peters that was ruled incomplete because Fuller was out of bounds:

Huh. Where have we seen the ol’ finger-wag before? Ah, right: It’s J.J. Watt’s go-to taunt celebration. And maybe two hours before Peters was flagged for using it, the league blasted out this from its official Twitter account:

Peters pleaded his case with the officials for a good while after the play. But following the game, he responded to a question about the penalty with the bloodless obedience of a lobotomy patient: “It was a great call by the ref. All I can do is my job,” Peters said. The NFL later fined him $9,115, just for good measure.

The most notorious invocation of the new rule involved Browns wideout Terrelle Pryor in Week 2. Late in the game, with the Browns driving as they trailed by five, Pryor caught a 20-yard pass that would have set Cleveland up at the Ravens’ 10. But after the play, Pryor was flagged for taunting because he did this:

Was Pryor obviously taunting Lardarius Webb with that move? The league didn’t think so, as it decided not to fine him. But not until after the Browns lost the game because Pryor’s penalty backed them up to the 30-yard line with 20 seconds to play and zero timeouts remaining, and Josh McCown tossed an INT on the next play.


So, back to Josh Norman and his bow and arrow. Here’s Mike Pereira explaining why the bow and arrow gesture is not permitted:

“They look at it as the same as shooting guns,” Pereira said with a straight face; apparently the bow-and-arrow gesture constitutes a “machine-gun salute,” which is specifically prohibited under the aforementioned 12.3.1(c)(4). Are any weapons OK? Can you blow smoke away from the end of a gun barrel? Pretend to taze a teammate? Chop down the goalposts with an ax? Some consistency would be nice.


Hang on, though. Here’s Saints wideout Brandin Cooks, whipping out his signature celebration move back in Week 1:

And here’s Cooks going to the bow and arrow again later in that same game:

Cooks was not penalized either time, nor was he fined. You know who wasn’t either? Josh Norman in Week 2:

Norman did admit he thought he would get a warning for the bow and arrow on Sunday, which is why he said he took care to wait until he was on the sideline to do it.


The sideline? Why would Norman think that mattered? Probably because of rule 12.3.1(c)(5), which states that “[p]rolonged or excessive celebrations or demonstrations by an individual player” will be “penalized if they occur anywhere on the field other than the bench area.”

But wait! The new taunting rule does not refer to “excessive celebrations.” It refers to this stuff, which doesn’t appear to be affected by whether any of it happens in “the bench area”:

  • Throwing a punch or forearm, or kicking at an opponent, even if no contact is made
  • Using abusive, threatening or insulting language or gestures toward opponents, teammates, officials or league representatives
  • Using baiting or taunting acts or words that engender ill will between teams.

So what, then, constitutes “prolonged or excessive celebrations or demonstrations by an individual player”? That’s spelled out in 12.3.1(d)(e)(f)(g):

(d) Players are prohibited from engaging in any celebrations or demonstrations while on the ground. A celebration or demonstration shall be deemed excessive or prolonged if a player continues to celebrate or demonstrate after a warning from an official.

(e) Two or more players engaging in prolonged, excessive, premeditated, or choreographed celebrations or demonstrations.

(f) Possession or use of foreign or extraneous object(s) that are not part of the uniform on the field or the sideline during the game.

(g) Using the ball or any other object including pylons, goal posts, or crossbars, as a prop.

(I know this is tough to follow, and you’ve even got the pertinent rules in front of you. Imagine being the poor officials tasked with enforcing all this on the field, in real time.)


So, then, knowing seemingly everything about what constitutes unsportsmanlike conduct and what doesn’t, what’s your call on Emmanuel Sanders’s cartwheel routine after his fourth-quarter touchdown on Sunday?

Sanders was initially flagged, but the foul was waved off after the officials conferred and determined that, as referee Jerome Boger eventually explained to the crowd, “the receiver did not touch the ground.” The rule is clear.