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Why NFL referees no longer salute

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64 years ago, the gesture we know as “unnecessary roughness” was adopted.

Chicago Bears v Detroit Lions Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

The evolution of football’s clockwork often takes strange twists and turns, cobbling together rules and necessities on the fly and then fixing things whenever they become problematic; a legacy born of the sport’s close allegiance to broadcast.

For example: 70 years ago, NFL referees used to salute towards the broadcast booth during football games.

However, the officials were not paying respects to the play-by-play guy. They were instead indicating that a player on the field had committed unnecessary roughness.

The gesture being associated with the penalty is not unique to football. In fact, it is still used in lacrosse, also to signal unnecessary roughness.

But the signal was changed in the NFL in 1955 by commissioner Bert Bell, at the request of the military veterans association American Legion.

As the story goes, Legion representatives had quizzed an elementary school class about the meaning of the military salute. One 12-year-old boy had responded that the gesture meant “unnecessary roughness.”

That one boy was enough to worry the American Legion, and the NFL in turn. The gesture was tuned to one wrist being struck by a fist above the head—this signal eventually evolved into the signal for personal foul.

The military salute has also been barred from use by the players as well. Up until 2016, the NFL rule book considered using a “military salute” as eligible for an unsportsmanlike conduct call. Under a note to rule 12, section 3 article 1, the act—when used towards a player or official or league representative—could be construed as “abusive, threatening, or insulting language or gestures”:

Violations of (b) will be penalized if any of the acts are committed directly at an opponent. These acts include, but are not limited to: sack dances; home run swing; incredible hulk; spiking the ball; spinning the ball; throwing or shoving the ball; pointing; pointing the ball; verbal taunting; military salute; standing over an opponent (prolonged and with provocation); or dancing.

This note disappeared from rule books in 2017, along with all other examples listed.