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8 Upper

Get Real

By Tom Scocca | Posted 12/8/1999

In a stirring victory for gentleness and civilization, a whole slate of National Football League action went by this past weekend without any player drawing a finger menacingly across his throat. There were, I see by the agate type, at least two cases of head trauma, two disabling rib injuries, four sprained or hyperextended knees, and one broken leg. But the players were all protected from the dangers of pantomime neck-slitting.

The NFL has been gravely concerned about said gesture of late, banning it in mid-November after Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre directed it at Detroit cornerback Robert Bailey, and fining Saints defensive lineman Willie Whitehead $10,000 for using it a week later in a loss to the Rams. This gesture, fretted George Young, NFL vice president of football operations, "appears to depict an unacceptable act of violence."

Come again? The NFL worrying about seeming too violent is like the Federal Reserve Board worrying about seeming too obsessed with money. Ritualized violence is what pro football is all about. This is a league in which coaches routinely describe three hours of exertion on a Sunday as "war." It's the league of the bomb, blitz, and shotgun. This is a league for which the flagship TV program, Monday Night Football, used to feature animated fighter jets making strafing runs through the opening titles.

In the midst of so much real and pretend mayhem, it's hard to believe the NFL is denouncing the throat-slitting gesture in the spirit of pacifism. The league's defenders seem to be genuinely confused about the difference between fake and real violence—as if they're afraid the professionally violent men on the field are always on the brink of breaking into criminally violent behavior. As ever, this fear has everything to do with race. Though the player who brought down the ban, Favre, is white, most of its earlier practitioners are African-American: Ricky Watters, Warren Sapp, Aikili Smith, Keyshawn Johnson. In case anyone missed the subtext, some wags took to referring to the gesture as "the O.J."

The issue is control. Whenever the league cracks down on a new form of taunting or celebration, the underlying idea is the same: The new breed of thuggish players is undermining the culture of the game. Because those players tend to be young and African-American, and NFL management tends to be old and white, it becomes a matter of us vs. them. NFL leadership announces a zero-tolerance policy and starts handing out fines.

In sports conduct, as in criminal justice, the sledgehammer approach sounds tough, but it doesn't pay off. The league bars one form of behavior—say, Emmitt Smith's helmet-shedding end-zone strut—and a new one crops up. The difference between how players want to act and how the league wants to make them act never goes away.

For starters, the NFL should be willing to put up with a little taunting and showboating. I'm not a fan of the throat-slash, mainly because it was already a cliché before the ban came down. (Favre's display was a sarcastic reply to Detroit's defensive backs having done it the last time the teams played.) It doesn't even communicate its message very well—in traditional usage, it means, "I will cut your throat," not, "I have cut your throat." But not all showing off is a bad thing. I think Barry Sanders was a badass for having enough self-control to just give the ball to the ref after scoring, but I understand the impulse to celebrate. A good end-zone dance is like the exploding scoreboard in baseball—done right, it adds to the experience.

The trouble with taunting is that too much of it is pointless. Running backs strut in the end zone while their team is losing by 20. Wideouts make the move-the-chains sign after stepping out of bounds on a 4-yard catch on second-and-3. Defensive backs thump their chests after making a tackle, even if the guy they tackled just caught a pass on them. These things are obnoxious but they're not criminal or dangerous. What they are is unsportsmanlike.

Unfortunately, current NFL rules—written under zero-tolerance theory—only describe one category of "unsportsmanlike conduct," embracing everything from rude gestures to spearing, fighting, and eye-gouging. So it is that a player who forgets himself and takes off his helmet to celebrate (breaking the Emmitt Smith rule) gets the same 15-yard penalty as one who uses his helmet to break the quarterback's jaw.

The solution is so stunningly obvious that I offer it to the NFL free of charge: Create a 5-yard unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty for minor infractions, to be assessed after the play—not enough to change the course of a game, but a mild corrective. Want to make the move-the-chains sign after a routine catch? Fine, it's first down and 15. Want to do the throat-slit, or the goalpost dunk, or the Dirty Bird? Enjoy yourself, and take the 5.

Rather than making an example of a few players, the NFL could police everyone equally. Even the biggest show-offs would start restraining themselves once they rack up 50 or 60 yards worth of penalties on the season. Players would learn to save the fancy stuff for special occasions.

The NFL already has one two-level penalty on the books: 5 yards for brief and inadvertent grabbing of the face mask, 15 for deliberate, malicious yanking. It's an acknowledgement that some face masks do get grabbed, whether the league likes it or not, and that the league's job is to keep the grabbing from going too far. If the NFL was as understanding about symbolic violence as it is about physical violence, the taunting problem would go away once and for all.

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