Bernstein: Is The NFL Getting More Fun?

By Dan Bernstein

It’s a party in the end zone, and everyone’s invited.

Not quite all that, perhaps, but in a sign that the stodgy league may finally be willing to better understand the viral value of a little creativity and silliness, NFL executives have been meeting at the combine in Indianapolis with union reps and current and former players to discuss relaxing the rules regarding “excessive” celebration.

According to a USA Today report Tuesday night, “there is a strong sense that changes are coming to clarify the rules,” and that the moves “could ease pressure on officials to over-enforce and reverse the surge in celebration fouls.”

Good.

A sport facing recent viewership headwinds, confusion over officiating the game itself on a weekly basis and issues with endemic brain trauma should have more and larger concerns than punishing a player for making snow angels like a happy four-year-old. Erring on the side of entertainment just might be a good thing, considering we are dealing with professionals who happen to enjoy the chance to put on more of a show.

This reversal would be notable in the wake of last season’s crackdown, one that saw 30 such penalties called. The report notes that the 2016 total was one more than the previous two seasons put together, and up from just five in 2013. It’s essentially an admission of error in policy, possibly spurred by the popularity of a series of sketches on the comedy show Key & Peele satirizing it.

Keegan-Michael Key’s excessively celebratory wide receiver character was even part of a Super Bowl week awards presentation at an NFL Honors event, one that commissioner Roger Goodell helped preview by making fun of himself in a video. There’s a good chance the lampooning of the strict rules — and the subsequent appreciation of it all across the league and among fans — made enough of an impact for Goodell to soften his stance.

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The next step is defining the new limits, however, and that would seem to be the subject of ongoing discussions in Indy over the next few days. If there is to be new latitude, officials may also have to be entrusted with more judgmental power in the moment, considering that the boundless imagination of players will undoubtedly mean some entirely unpredictable and spontaneous spectacles. They can’t be asked to hold every touchdown dance up to a long checklist before deciding if it’s kosher or not.

The USA Today story says that duration of celebration is likely to be one criterion, but even that would remain subjective. The current rules prohibit using the ball as a prop, dunking over the goalpost, throat-slash gestures, pantomiming guns, anything deemed sexually suggestive, “prolonged gyrations” (the specific Key & Peele target), and stomping on a team logo.

It’s all positive if this gets handled properly. And the next step will be the NFL taking a cue from the NBA in allowing more free and easy sharing of short video content on social media, facilitating any added entertainment value. There’s no point allowing for more of this kind of thing if it can’t make its way in front of people as quickly and broadly as possible. If that happens, there will also be debate about what’s flagged and what’s not, particularly early on.

Perhaps the best marching orders for determining excessiveness come from former Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart, in his famous threshold test for obscenity. He wrote in a 1964 ruling that he could not succeed in defining it, but “I know it when I see it.”

Dan Bernstein is senior columnist on CBS Chicago and co-host of “Boers & Bernstein” on Chicago’s 670 The Score.

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