NFL’s emphasis on penalizing abusive language taking hold

NFL players need to know that officials are listening -- and starting to throw flags -- when trash talking crosses the line.

Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

All of the defensive penalties being called this preseason aren’t the only thing some NFL players and coaches are cursing about.

The league’s crackdown on verbally abusive language is making an impact as well.

During the first two weeks of exhibition games, six flags were thrown on those who crossed the line with their banter toward opposing players or the referees. NFL vice president of officiating Dean Blandino told FOX Sports that the majority were the result solely of “profane, abusive language,” although some stemmed from “language that involved a racial nature.”

“The initial impact is seen in the calls being made,” Blandino said Tuesday in a telephone interview. “It’s important to note that zero-tolerance wasn’t a change in this area. The point of emphasis when we’re looking at (unsportsmanlike conduct) fouls from 2012 to 2013 is up almost four times.

“We’ve had six calls through 33 games. That’s indicative of what the emphasis is. I think teams and players understand that abusive language at opponents and officials needs to be redirected.”

Though the league has tried cleaning up this area and related issues the past few years, the issue has taken on even greater importance since the start of the 2013 season.

The Fritz Pollard Alliance, which promotes diversity and the hiring of minority coaching and front office candidates by teams, called upon the NFL last November to discipline anyone in the league using racial epitaphs on or off the field.

The advocacy came after two well-publicized incidents: the bullying scandal involving Miami Dolphins offensive linemen Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin as well as a verbal altercation between Washington Redskins left tackle Trent Williams and game official Roy Ellison.

Richie Incognito’s problems with the Dolphins last season brought the issue of verbally abusive language in the NFL to the forefront.

The Incognito/Martin controversy prompted the league to take a long look at workplace conduct – much of which isn’t politically correct when compared to the non-football world. Incognito, who is white, was alleged to have used repeated racial slurs toward Martin, who is African-American, and others in the Dolphins organization.

However, the context in which Incognito made those comments remains subjective when one considers that — albeit crass — some players use slang such as the “N-word” as a term of endearment rather than to express bigotry or hatred. And for better or worse, the Dolphins were far from the only team ever to house a culture of locker-room ribbing that involved ethnophaulisms.

Martin abruptly left the team last October amid claims that he was being bullied primarily by Incognito, who was subsequently suspended by the team. Incognito is now a free agent; Martin was traded in the offseason to San Francisco.

Ellison was suspended for one game after allegedly making racial slurs in a game toward Williams, who also is African-American. Williams has denied claims that he used a racial slur toward Ellison that provoked the exchange.

Although the Fritz Pollard Alliance asked the NFL to implement a specific rule regarding racial slurs, the league’s competition committee said it believes such language is already on the books for unsportsmanlike conduct and would be enforced more stringently. Rule 12, Section 3, Article 1 prohibits “using abusive, threatening, or insulting language or gestures to opponents, teammates, officials, or representatives of the league.”

Another element to consider for the NFL’s efforts was the addition of its first openly gay player. Rookie defensive end Michael Sam, who revealed his sexuality in January, was selected in the seventh round of last May’s draft.

How an admitted homosexual would be accepted in the machismo NFL landscape had been a long-standing debate. But not only has Sam gained quick acceptance from his Rams teammates, the league is hoping that use of homophobic slurs by all players will end. Blandino said none of the unsportsmanlike language calls this preseason have involved comments of a sexual nature.

Though the verbal abuse fouls haven’t drawn much media attention so far, that should quickly change when results are far more meaningful in the regular season. Calling these fouls also places pressure on referees to make a snap judgment about what should be penalized and trying to identify the violator, which isn’t easy in a sport where helmets are worn.

NFL field judge Barry Anderson admits among officials that there are “concerns this is going to be a challenge.”

“We’ve got to see it or know who said it,” Anderson said during a media officiating seminar earlier this month at Atlanta Falcons headquarters.

The biggest challenge is differentiating between what back-and-forth banter and trash talk really is and where it crosses the line and becomes abusive. It’s something we’re going to work with the game officials on and they’re going to continue to work on.

NFL field judge Barry Anderson

Anderson also said the league office told referees to “treat (the field) like a 9-to-5 workplace” in determining verbally abusive language. Because the gridiron is anything but that type of sanitized environment, Blandino allowed that subjectivity will be needed to make the correct call.

“We don’t want to take the emotion out,” he said. “We’re not going to run around and police screaming if you do something good. We know what happens on the field is a little different. But people have to understand this is a workplace for officials, players and coaches. Everyone has to be aware that sportsmanship is a big part of what this league entails.

“I think the biggest challenge is differentiating between what back-and-forth banter and trash talk really is and where it crosses the line and becomes abusive. It’s something we’re going to work with the game officials on and they’re going to continue to work on.”

Blandino said the same school of thought applies to players and coaches. Like when defenders learned how to tackle differently after the league stressed rules prohibiting hits to the head area, Blandino believes those involved in the game can be programmed to act accordingly. The NFL spelled out its plans to further regulate verbally abusive language through videos and officiating seminars held with all 32 franchises during the preseason.

“Teams are going to adjust,” Blandino said. “I don’t think we’re going to have an explosion of fouls. I think players and coaches understand where the line is. You’ve got to stay below it.”

Washington’s coaching staff crossed the line during Monday night’s preseason game against Cleveland. As referee Terry McAulay was announcing a holding penalty against the Redskins’ defense, he was hit with a barrage of obscenities from the Washington sideline. McAulay drew his flag and called a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on the Redskins bench.

I asked Redskins wide receiver Andre Roberts if he had heard less verbally abusive interaction through the first two preseason games and whether the NFL can truly scrub language that could sometimes make even Scarface blush.

“I have no clue as to whether this is the sort of thing that can be cleaned up, but the game isn’t going to be played a different way,” Roberts said. “The trash talking I think is still going to kind of be there. That has nothing to do with the ability of the players.

“Some guys talk more than others. But at the end of the day, it all depends on what you do on the field and what your play is like — not what’s coming out of your mouth.”

Unless a game official feels differently.

Alex Marvez and co-host Bill Polian interviewed Andre Roberts on SiriusXM NFL Radio.