After all the bad publicity the SEC endured last year as a result of Mark Curles’ crew, it amazes me somewhat that the NCAA is willing to double down on punishing subjective behavior in a football game. And make no mistake about it, that’s the real problem with making the taunting penalty a live ball foul.
… The NCAA rule book tries to be specific on the matter of taunting, and most of the examples offered hardly require interpretation.
Players can’t use “threatening or obscene language or gestures,” such as “imitating the slashing of a throat.” They can’t stand over a fallen opponent and beat their chest. They can’t point any part of their anatomy or the ball itself at an opponent. Going into the stands is definitely verboten. So is pretending to fire a weapon, and even cupping a hand around the ear, as in the “I-can’t-hear-you” pantomime.
But just about everything else falls into a gray area.
Players can get whistled for “obviously altering stride,” a penalty previously called only on “Dancing with the Stars.” And how about “bowing at the waist after a good play”?
Asking referees to pass judgment on what constitutes taunting from a group that’s quite different generationally and culturally puts the officials in a tough spot. And that’s what’s really going on here. The refs are being asked to impose the world view of people like Indiana head coach Bill Lynch.
… Lynch called taunting an area that needed to be cleaned up and said he supported taking away scores.
“Just run it into the end zone, how hard is that?” he said after a spring practice. “It is a team game and that’s what makes it such a great game.”
Don’t get me wrong. Lynch is certainly entitled to his aesthetic opinion of the sport. But I’m hard pressed to see how that necessarily equates to what I thought was the real purpose of preventing taunting, which is to prevent bad blood on the field from escalating an emotion-laden game into something… well, like this:
In other words, if the kids aren’t offended, how much should it matter that the refs are?
And that’s not the only problem I see here. Mack Brown puts his finger on something else that’s inevitable when you make this a judgment call.
“I am most concerned about the taunting rule,” Brown said. “I don’t disagree with it, but I am worried about the consistency in how the rule is interpreted, especially when it can cost a team a touchdown. It can be looked at so differently by the various officiating groups around the country and a call would have such a major impact on games that in fairness, it’s crucial that it is called the same way for everyone.”
Ponder that as you remember that this is Verle Sorgen’s world and the Pac-10 is just living in it.
And don’t think these guys don’t know that problems with this rule are inevitable. Here’s a sample of some thoughts on that:
… Say some mammoth defensive lineman causes a fumble, then bends over to catch his breath even as the teammate who scooped up the loose ball is running it back for a score? Fair or foul?
“That’s a good one,” Teaff said. “I imagine it’s one of those cases where the refs may have to go back and take another look.”
… Parry said the decision to implement the rule in 2011 gives players and coaches ample advance warning.
“This gives the players a year’s notice that we’re going to be tougher on sportsmanship. Last year it was mentioned that this could become a possibility,” Parry said.
He also predicted the penalty would be called “very rarely.”
“If it’s close to diving into the end zone, most likely it would be ruled that the act ended while in the end zone. We’ll be lenient,” Parry said. “It’s really if it’s really bad, for example, if a guy flips the bird at the 10 or high-steps backwards into the end zone or starts a forward roll at the 3-yard line.”
… Wait until some overzealous ref decides some player slowed down too much, stepped too high, pranced too merrily, looked back over his shoulder too long or launched himself too early into the end zone – and then calls taunting in the final seconds of a game on a hot, boozy afternoon with first place on the line in the SEC. Better yet, he needs a replay to make the determination.
No doubt coaches, players and especially fans will take it all in stride – on their way to storming the field.
“Nothing’s perfect,” said Grant Teaff, executive director of the American Football Coaches Association. “I’m sure something, or some situation will come up down the road that’s going to cause a lot of people some consternation. And when that happens, we’ll look at the rule and decide if it needs adjusting…”
Here’s a novel thought: why not get it right in the first place? Why not start by limiting the rule to penalize specifically designated acts, with no gray areas for the referees to impose their subjectivity?