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NFL approves ejections for two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties; won't really change much

A whole lot of fury and sound, signifying nothing.

Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

As the NFL annual meetings continue on down in Boca Raton (the jokes write themselves guys, honest), more of the proposed rules are being examined and ruled on. Tuesday saw approvals to the elimination of chop blocking, but on Wednesday three more rules were approved as one-year experiments: kickoff touchbacks to start an offensive drive at the 25-yard line, a tweak to the injury-reserve and the ejection of a player after two unsportsmanlike conduct calls.

Let's get the first two out of the way: hooray, we're starting drives further and further ahead so that kickoff returns become even less common. Maybe it has the weird side-effect of making teams not try to kick for a touchback, but then you quickly remember that this is the NFL and every coach is coaching conservative most of the time; the idea of trying to squib it or kick it short is probably so terrifying a ST coordinator had to go home and change his drawers right now. Expect this to go permanent like the PAT rule because I really don't know what we're doing on these plays anymore.

The injury-reserve change is a little interesting: teams no longer need to designate which player can return from the IR. This is probably a good change that makes things easier for teams and players to get back to the field.

Here's the one that's stealing the headlines today:


A lot of people who are Very Mad that the players are Acting Like Thugs These Days will be very happy, no doubt, but the truth of the matter is that this rule will probably change very little, unless the way referees call unsportsmanlike conduct penalties change.

The NFL had two very public blow-ups involving player conduct during their games: Odell Beckham Jr. going out and trying to decapitate Josh Norman in a very public Giants-Panthers matchup in the regular season, followed by Vontaze Burfict doing Burfict-y things during the AFC Wild Card game between the Bengals and Steelers. It was egg on the face for the league and fueled a lot of very angry sports takes.

These two situations -- along with the overarching notion that "the players are out of control" -- are certainly fueling the new push to seemingly add what is on the surface an analog to the NBA's ejections for two technical fouls/two Flagrant 1's. Everyone can relate to that easily. The problem becomes as soon as you dive past the surface you see how silly this legislation is.

Let's start with the fact that neither Burfict nor Beckham would have been ejected under this rule last season. Neither earned two unsportsmanlike conduct calls. In fact, since 2013, only three players would have been eligible for ejection.

Next, let's dive into which particular unsportsmanlike calls can rack up the two to eject a player:

In addition to any penalty referenced elsewhere in the Official Playing Rules, a player will be automatically disqualified in the event that player is penalized twice in the same game for committing one of the unsportsmanlike conduct fouls listed below, or a combination of the fouls listed below:

1. Throwing a punch, or a forearm, or kicking at an opponent, even though no contact is made.

2. Using abusive, threatening, or insulting language or gestures to opponents, teammates, officials, or representatives of the League.

3. Using baiting or taunting acts or words that engender ill will between teams.

No. 1 is the crux of the matter; there's no excuse for assault on the field like what Odell Beckham Jr. was guilty of against Josh Norman. That said, how many times do you see players get away with physically attacking another player twice in a single game? Beckham attacked once and that was it.

No. 2 gets murkier -- you can watch gestures and you can hear the language if it's directed at an official or league rep -- and no. 3 is completely unenforceable. What does it mean to "engender ill will"? How will you enforce taunting words, the trash talk that goes on between a corner and a wideout on nearly every play? Where's the dividing line between proper trash and going too far? Hell, how will the officials know unless they're in earshot? Are we expecting players to go out and snitch? Come on.

The way the new rule is written, it seems to want punish Josh Norman more for trash talking Odell Beckham Jr. than it does want to eject Beckham for trying to decapitate Norman. That's insane. In fact, it's not only insane, but completely plausible this was the spirit of the change! Hear it from Giants owner John Mara, whose big name player fell for Norman's trash talk and went flying off the handle:


What about the argument of a chilling effect, that a player will get one unsportsmanlike conduct call and cut the crap? Not necessarily. The history above indicates that there's rarely repeats anyway. Texans coach Bill O'Brien also believes the opposite will happen: players will start baiting those who already got a call.

"Let's just say one of your best players is going to get an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty," O'Brien said. "Is he going to become a target? Meaning, are they going to go after this guy to try to get him to do something that he gets kicked out of the game? That would be my concern about it, but I'm going to do what they tell me to do."


The fact is that if the league really wanted stop guys like Burfict and Beckham, whose actions required immediate removal and not some two-strike nonsense, they'd empower the referees who already have the ability to eject players. Until now, the officials have been comfortable doing no such thing. The league likes it that way because it means they can grab headlines when a suspension or fine comes down the newswire on Tuesdays during the season.

And that's what this is about. It's not about trying to make the game safer or cutting out the dirty plays. It's once again about appearing tough before the court of public opinion, where it's all too easy to keep this myth about the out of control athlete going strong. It's the same stale joke that's kept Roger Goodell employed long after his usefulness has worn out.