It became clear during the 2016 season that the NFL was reacting to intense criticism of the No-Fun-League by allowing officials to exercise discretion regarding rules that, as written, aren’t discretionary. As of next week, they may be.
As expected, the Competition Committee has taken a closer look at the issue of celebrations. Via Kevin Seifert of ESPN.com, the Committee will recommend giving officials “more flexibility to warn players about borderline celebrations without penalizing them for unsportsmanlike conduct.” As explained by Seifert, this would not result in a formal rule change but an emphasis to officials that the league “wants players to engage in spontaneous celebrations as long as they are not prolonged or excessive.”
That’s fine, but that approach will make it hard for coaches and players to know where the line is. Standards like not going to the ground or not using the ball as a prop or three pumps allow for predictability and certainty. A rule permitting celebrations that aren’t “prolonged or excessive” will result in seat-of-the-pants, know-it-when-you-see-it decisions that could result in different standards for different crews, with the trigger point differing by day or quarter or drive or whatever.
The best approach would be to have a clear rule as to what is and isn’t allowed, and to enforce it consistently. Allowing technical violations to go unpunished (like the snow angel exemption) in order to avoid criticism from fans and the media will serve only to create confusion. By giving flexibility to the officials to penalize or not to penalize teams for excessive celebrations, the league subtly shifts the focal point of the criticism from the league’s fun-stifling rules to the grumpy old men who want players to get off their lawns.
The officials enforce the rules; they don’t make them. If the NFL has concerns about the current celebration rules, it’s up to the NFL to craft a standard that can be enforced reliably, consistently, and properly in all cases.