Colts running back Benny LeMay learned just how easy it will be this season to pick up a 15-yard penalty for taunting.
LeMay, who went undrafted out of UNC-Charlotte in 2020 and spent training camp with the Browns last year, had the best per-carry average of any Colts rusher in Sunday’s preseason opener against the Panthers (six carries for 26 yards and a touchdown).
His longest run of the day was a 14-yard carry in the third quarter where he was stood up by linebacker Josh Bynes four yards past the line of scrimmage but kept his legs churning for another 10 yards while opponents clung to his back. After he was finally brought down, LeMay flexed in Bynes’s face. That mild celebration earned LeMay a taunting penalty, erasing his big pickup.
LeMay’s celebration is about as tame as they come in the NFL, but the league has decided, for some reason, to crack down on taunting this season. The league said in a message to players last week that it had seen an increase in actions “not representative of the respect to opponents and others on the field” and was instructing officials to “strictly enforce the taunting rules.”
The LeMay penalty shows just how strict that enforcement will be. The majority of his celebration was directed away from Bynes, but because he got up in Bynes’s face as he rose to his feet, he was flagged for taunting.
To a certain extent, the NFL is asking players to totally overwrite their instincts. Imagine how much adrenaline was pumping through LeMay’s veins after that amazing run. He just dragged Bynes (who is five inches taller and 20 pounds heavier than him) for a full 10 yards and he’s not allowed to show him up a little bit?
Taunting is only defined very broadly in the NFL rulebook. It’s one of eight types of actions that can trigger a penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct. The rulebook prohibits “baiting or taunting acts or words that may engender ill will between teams” but does not give any examples of what sorts of acts or words might qualify.
The issue is with the NFL allowing officials to assume what sorts of acts or words “may engender ill will between teams.” The older, predominantly white officials probably have a different understanding of when a taunt crosses the line than the younger, predominantly Black players. I don’t think there is a single player in the NFL who would find LeMay’s flex offensive enough that he would seek retribution. The most reasonable way to enforce the taunting rule would be to apply former Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart’s “I know it when I see it” standard, but that’s difficult to communicate in a memo, so instead the league is telling officials to stick to the letter of the law.
The bigger question is why the NFL felt compelled to instruct officials to call more taunting penalties in the first place and whether it will derail games once they start to count. Does the league really want games to be interrupted by more flags, especially ones thrown for minor infractions that fans don’t care about Was taunting really that big an issue in games last season? I guess we’ll see just how serious the NFL is about this once the regular season starts. 
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