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Will NFL’s latest emphasis on taunting stick?

The NFL is putting an emphasis on taunting this season, but it'll be key for league officials not to confuse taunting with excitement and energy.

From time to time, the NFL makes the taunting rule a point of emphasis for officials. That’s a fancy way of saying that someone in the league office doesn’t think the game officials are properly calling the foul, so calling it a point of emphasis becomes a wake-up call to the folks with the yellow flags.

In 2014, then Rams coach Jeff Fisher made it clear that taunting would be a point of emphasis, explaining that it was an issue of respect, and that the NFL hoped the standard would trickle down to lower levels of the sport.

That same year, the NFL actually pondered the possibility of making taunting a foul that could wipe out, for example, a touchdown capped by taunting on the way to the end zone. (The change has never been made.)

In April, Falcons CEO Rich McKay said that taunting will indeed be a point of emphasis again. “The face to face, the pointing of fingers, the standing over players on the ground,” will be penalized, McKay said.

That apparently went unnoticed, because it wasn’t until last week that social media had a conniption fit over the “No Fun League” taking taunting out of the game, after the video regarding the point of emphasis emerged. (Twitter had an aftershock on Sunday, when a player directed a post-play flex in the direction of a tackler.)

The line seems to be whether and to what extent actions are directed at an opponent. In 2013, as the NFL dealt with the serious issue (sarcasm) of players spinning the football, it’s prohibited only when the player spins the ball at the feet of a standing opponent or toward the body of an opponent who is on the ground. Spinning the ball generally isn’t a foul.

Although the league didn’t specify the reason for making taunting a point of emphasis again, it’s possible that Buccaneers defensive back Antoine Winfield sticking two fingers in the face of Chiefs receiver Tyreek Hill during the Super Bowl (which was penalized) sparked a closer look at the fact that Hill routinely has gotten away with flashing the peace sign at opponents as he scampers away from them. If the officials consistently had been flagging Hill for taunting, it never would have gotten to the point that Winfield, on the sport’s biggest stage, sought out Hill when the game as a practical matter was over and gave him a taste of his own deuces.

And so what will happen? The officials will watch it closely this year, and players will comply. Eventually (and inevitably) some mild taunting will creep back into the game without flags being thrown, until it becomes a point of emphasis again.