Time to throw a flag on the NFL's unnecessary focus on taunting

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Benny LeMay wasn't drafted coming out of the University of North Carolina Charlotte in 2020. Last season, the Cleveland Browns did add the running back on their practice squad ... for five days. He was then cut.

This summer he wound up in the training camp of the Indianapolis Colts and with the ball tucked under his arm in the third quarter of a preseason game against Carolina.

LeMay got hit at the line of scrimmage but kept churning his legs until he carried up to six defenders downfield for an impressive 14-yard gain. It’s the kind of play that can take an anonymous camp invite to an NFL roster.

He then stood up, flexed briefly in the direction of one Panthers defender and appeared to let out a primal scream. He was excited. His teammates came to acknowledge him.

And then he got a flag thrown on him. The penalty? Taunting ... 15 yards.

Ugh.

The NFL has warned players, coaches and, yes, fans that this was coming. The league is on one of its “sportsmanship” kicks. Why? Because it says so.

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - AUGUST 15: Benny LeMay #42 of the Indianapolis Colts runs the ball during the fourth quarter in the preseason game against the Carolina Panthers at Lucas Oil Stadium on August 15, 2021 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images)
Benny LeMay's emotional reaction to a big play was spoiled by an absurd taunting penalty. (Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images)

“We saw an increase in actions that clearly are not within the spirit and intent of this rule and not representative of respect due opponents and others on the field,” NFL competition committee chairman Rich McKay said this summer in announcing the enforcement focus. “Game officials have been instructed to strictly enforce the taunting rules.”

That means 15 yards for the first offense, and expulsion from the game for a second incident. There could also be fines and/or further suspensions.

If the standard this season is going to be what Benny LeMay did last weekend then it's going to be a long year. This was nothing. This was a penalty in search of an offense.

Respect is nice, but this is also football. It’s a physical game. It’s an emotional game. It’s a difficult game.

Great plays sometimes inspire over-the-top reactions. The moment regular-season games are altered because the poor refs have to take into account the feelings of the other team then this is going to descend into a circus.

Yeah, yeah, sure, sportsmanship and class and role models and blah, blah, blah. Yes, Barry Sanders used to score and just flip the ball to the ref (most of the time). That’s great for Barry. He’s still getting praised for it. That’s the reward for acting that way. It doesn’t need to be the standard.

Sure, the old mantra is to “act like you’ve been there before.”

Well, LeMay had never been there before.

Instead he had delivered the kind of play that thrills fans and inspires teammates, the kind of effort that is almost uniquely football. It was the product of a lifetime of work, and nearly two years of dreaming.

Do you blame him for being pumped up? It was awesome. If Carolina’s Josh Bynes — who was ostensibly “taunted” (after holding onto LeMay’s jersey, mind you) — was that upset, he should have stopped LeMay in the first place. He didn’t look too offended. He wasn’t seeking some safe space.

This is unnecessary.

After all, the most famous taunting incident last season came in two delicious acts.

The first was during a Week 12 victory by Kansas City over Tampa Bay. Tyreek Hill, the Chiefs receiver in the middle of a monster performance, caught a pass and threw up a peace sign in the face of Bucs safety Antoine Winfield Jr. as Hill raced toward, and then backflipped into, the end zone.

The revenge came late in the Bucs' Super Bowl victory when Winfield broke up a pass intended for Hill and then returned the peace sign. He was hit with a flag (and later a fine) but it was a memorable moment and a perfect bit of frontier justice.

“When we played them earlier, Hill went off on us,” Winfield said. “He backflipped in front of my face and gave me the peace sign, so it was only right that I gave him the peace sign back to him at this moment. It felt amazing.”

It must have. What goes around comes around. Who the heck was hurt by this? Tyreek Hill? Of all the people that need protecting. This is just the league pretending this stuff matters, appeasing, well, certainly someone out there dying to be offended by what grown men do in the middle of a heated sporting event. Maybe they should just sit back and enjoy the show.

The Hill-Winfield deal is probably what led to the rule change and Benny LeMay getting flagged and the possibility that this season could be a parade of referees trying to assess emotions and sadness among the players.

Might be easier to just let them play.

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