I must be pretty old, because I can remember a day when professional athletes let their playing do the talking on the field, when they acted as if they had scored a touchdown before, and when routine tackles didn’t come with choreographed dances. Last night as I watched Green Bay thump the Atlanta Falcons in Georgia, one Falcon managed to sack Aaron Rodgers — and popped up with a routine for which the announcer actually knew the name: “He just put on The Belt!” (I have to confess that it looked to me like something else, and something more vulgar, entirely.) The Falcons were losing by two touchdowns at the time of this dance routine, and went on to get belted by almost four touchdowns, thanks to the Falcons’ complete inability to stop the Packers, who never had to punt the ball in the game.
Trash talking has been an unfortunate part of the NFL, both on the field and especially off, for the last two or three decades. Players use it to spark emotion in their own team, deride their opponents, and most importantly, generate interest in the game. This week, though, the marketing strategy began to run off the rails a bit in New York City and Foxboro as the Jets and Patriots traded ever-more personal insults. Pats receiver Wes Welker made a series of references to a juicy scandal involving the Jets’ head coach Rex Ryan and his wife and some foot-fetish videos on the Internet allegedly made by the couple, which prompted a retort from the Jets’ Bart Scott that Welker’s days in uniform “will be numbered.” The NFL then issued a directive telling everyone left in the playoffs to, well, let their play do the talking from now on:
The NFL has warned players to cut out the trash talk, specifically when it threatens other players.
“Ray Anderson reminded players that comments of a physically threatening nature are always taken into account in evaluating discipline for any illegal physical contact on the field,” league spokesman Greg Aiello said Saturday.
NFL executive vice president of football operations Anderson is the league’s chief disciplinarian. He told teams, including all eight remaining in the playoffs, to basically watch it.
Since October, the NFL has ratcheted up its enforcement of hits to defenseless players with a series of fines and the threat of suspension. No suspensions have been handed out, but the recent rash of trash talk before playoff games prompted Anderson to further emphasize the need to respect the game and opponents.
The league is a little late in insisting on mutual respect from players — about thirty years too late. And let’s not pretend that was some kind of mistake, either. The NFL has been taunted for being the No Fun League, but the organization knows that controversy sparks interest, interest sparks viewers and attendance, and viewers and attendance means more money. Protecting players from dangerous hits is a good move, if sometimes done inconsistently and ham-handedly, but in the case of trash talk, the league helped create the monster it now seeks to rebuke.
It’s a little amusing to see the national “civility” fad move ever so briefly to the NFL, though. It’s not the first occasion I’ve had this week to refer back to Tom Lehrer’s amusing riff on how a civilized football fight song in the Ivy League might sound, but even after more than 60 years, it’s relevant:
What do you think? Is trash talking part of the fun, an unstoppable phenomenon, or should the NFL tighten the reins on it? Take the poll: