NFL taunting explained: Point of emphasis, rule change, fines


The NFL has played to its “No Fun League” label throughout the 2021 NFL season.

The league made taunting a point of emphasis heading into the year, and referees have been throwing flags like crazy. Some weeks have even featured enough taunting calls to comprise an entire highlight reel.

A particularly egregious example of the NFL’s new taunting emphasis came on Monday Night Football between the Chicago Bears and Pittsburgh Steelers. Cassius Marsh, who the Bears called up from the practice squad earlier in the day, got a key third-down sack in the fourth quarter. He then “postured” towards the Steelers’ sideline and bumped into official Tony Corrente on his way to the bench.

Corrente proceeded to launch his flag into the air and dish out a taunting penalty to Marsh, keeping the Steelers’ drive alive.

The Steelers wound up winning the game 29-27 in another exciting Monday night matchup, but the talk of the league Tuesday has once again circled back to taunting. Let’s look back at how the NFL got to this point.

What is the penalty for taunting in the NFL?

Here is the NFL’s criteria for “taunting” in its rulebook:

“The use of baiting or taunting acts or words that engender ill will between teams.”

The penalty results in a loss of 15 yards from the succeeding spot or whatever spot the officials deem appropriate. If the penalty is called on the defense, it also results in an automatic first down.

If a player commits two taunting calls in the same game, they are ejected. 

Do NFL players get fined for taunting?

NFL players can be fined up to $10,300 for their first offense and up to $15,450 for a second offense. All fines can be appealed.

When did the NFL change its taunting rule?

While the NFL changed several rules this offseason -- namely the expanded use of uniform numbers at certain positions, the NFL did not technically change its taunting rule. Instead, taunting was brought up as a point of emphasis through the league’s competition committee in August.

“The NFL Players Association, coaches and competition committee have all made a strong statement regarding respect among everyone on the field,” committee chairman Rich McKay said in the league’s video on officiating tweaks for 2021. “We saw an increase in actions that clearly are not within the spirit and intent of this rule is not representative of the respect to opponents and others on the field.”

Why is the NFL cracking down on taunting?

Several NFL owners have been vocal in their disdain for taunting on the field.

“That’s something we discuss every year in the competition committee,” New York Giants owner John Mara, who is also a competition committee member, said. “We get kind of sick and tired of the taunting that does go on from time to time on the field. We tried to balance the sportsmanship with allowing the players to have fun and there’s always a fine line there, but none of us like to see that. It’s just a question of whether you can have rules that can be enforced and without taking the fun out of the game too, but nobody wants to see a player taunting another player. I know, I certainly don’t. I think the rest of the members of the competition committee feel the same way, too.”

According to McKay, the issue was not just an idea from members of the competition committee. Instead, he said the NFL Players Association and even NCAA coaches supported the emphasis.

“First of all, this point of emphasis has nothing to do with the No Fun League,” McKay said in September (h/t Kevin Patra). “Where people can ding us on the No Fun League is the celebration rules. Taunting is a different thing. Taunting is trying to entice that other player into some type of activity that is not allowed in football. So this year, the first issue brought to us by the NFLPA was that there was too much player-on-player taunting activity, and there was too much in your face. No. 2, we meet with the NCAA every year, and the college coaches in the meeting say, 'Hey, when are you guys going to knock down the taunting?'”


NFLPA president JC Tretter disputed that the players association agreed with an increased emphasis on taunting.

“The majority of fans feel that this is a bad idea – and so do the majority of players,” Tretter wrote. “It is frustrating to read comments like the ones reported last week saying that the NFLPA were the ones who wanted this change. I can assure you, as an attendee of the competition committee meeting myself, that was not the case. On the contrary, we would support the removal of this point of emphasis immediately.”

How many taunting penalties have been called in the NFL?

Marsh’s infringement was the 27th taunting call in the NFL this year, according to Eleven of those calls came in the first two weeks of the season, matching the total from the 2020 season.

Monday’s contentious call was the Bears’ third taunting penalty this season, tying them with the Jacksonville Jaguars and Seattle Seahawks for the most in the NFL.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Buffalo Bills and Mara’s Giants have each been called for two so far in 2021. The Arizona Cardinals, Cincinnati Bengals, Denver Broncos, Detroit Lions, Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Las Vegas Raiders, Los Angeles Chargers, New Orleans Saints, New York Jets, Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco 49ers have each been called for one.

The other 14 teams have avoided getting called for taunting through nine weeks.

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