Why Is the NFL Flagging Players For Bringing Attention to Charities?

The NFL's celebration rules don't leave room for judgment, and that's a problem. 
Publish date:

Seahawks cornerback Justin Coleman made a game-changing play in the third quarter of Seattle's crucial game against the Cowboys. In a must-win situation, with his team trailing 9-7 and unable to get anything going offensively, Coleman took advantage of a bad throw by Dak Prescott and returned an interception for a touchdown to give Seattle a 14-9 advantage.

He celebrated by jumping into a giant Salvation Army bowl situated behind the end zone and was promptly flagged for an excessive celebration penalty. Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott, who made his return after a six-game suspension on Sunday, was flagged for the same celebration in Week 14 of last year. Despite the fact that Elliott's celebration led to a spike in donations to the Salvation Army, that flag made more sense, because the NFL hadn't yet relaxed its celebration rules. 

But this year, even after the NFL relaxed the rules—which has led to delightful celebrations like a potato sack race, leap-frog and duck-duck-goose—Coleman's celebration was still called for a penalty. The reason for this is because the rules clearly state that while a player can now celebrate with teammates, he cannot use anything besides the ball as a prop. Technically, the Salvation Army bowl qualifies as a prop, so the refs had no choice but to call a flag. 

The problem with the rule is exactly that—the refs have no discretion as to what qualifies as an excessive celebration. Nobody wants to flag a player for bringing attention to a charity, but the rules simply don't leave any room for interpretation. Referees can make a judgement call as to what qualifies as taunting or unsportsmanlike conduct, but not excessive celebration, and that's an issue. 

Players should be flagged for a celebration if it goes on way too long, is vulgar or blatantly disrespectful. Coleman's was none of those. Quite the opposite, really—sure, it was definitely a jab at Elliott, but more than anything else it gave a charity free advertising to millions of people. There's nothing "excessive" about that.