There is no more perfect way to mock the NFL's recent obsession with policing on-field celebrations than the league's solemn announcement, several weeks ago, that a Giants player would be fined precisely $12,154 for pretending to take a picture of a teammate celebrating a pick-six. From the specificity of the fine—which invites the possibility that a $12,155 fine would be a slightly different type of celebration-related offense—to the deliriously misplaced righteousness of the fine's very existence, it seems like an ideal encapsulation of the ridiculousness of the NFL's discipline fetish. It is the most NFL thing imaginable, mostly because it is the most concise satire of the NFL's baffling obsession with policing itself into pudding.
Or, anyway, I would have told you that before I witnessed Oakland Raiders punter Marquette King celebrating a punt that pinned the Denver Broncos by their own goal line on Sunday Night Football.
As it happens, the NFL tweeted out part of King's celebration from its official account, although they drew the line at the Lustily Riding The Pony part of it. King was not penalized for the celebration, which after all was not really taunting anyone and was mostly just one of the NFL's very best punters enjoying himself immensely while doing his job well. King is an interesting player for a number of reasons that have nothing to do with his knack for choreography or improvisation. He's an authentic prodigy in his craft, and one of precious few black men ever to hold what has historically been one of the NFL's whitest jobs.
As it happens, King is a super athlete whose time in the 40-yard dash is just a few tenths of a second slower than Amari Cooper's, but his backstory is that of any gym rat—college coaches who finally learn to live with his endless after-hours practice sessions, skills refined and re-refined over endless hours of repetition, a profile built by surprising scouts initially inclined not to pay him any mind. King's story is the sort of inspiration that leagues have been selling to the public for generations, right down to his goofball sense of humor. Despite the fact that he plays the most floridly unsexy position in the sport it's easy to see how the NFL could tell his story for both fun and profit. It is fun to watch him do what he does, after all, both because he has so much fun doing it and because he does it so well. This absolutely shouldn't be hard.
And yet, for very familiar reasons, this is very hard for the NFL. The league's signal failure, whether with its priggish policing of player behavior or its metastatic rulebook or its humorless and retrograde institutional preferences more generally, is a failure of imagination. The league's most powerful figures simply cannot imagine that anyone would want to watch football without the heavy presence of the league in it. The disciplinary fetish and political pretenses and facile accountability theater are the default obsessions of a certain type of sour old man, and long have been. These owners believe so deeply in these fixations of theirs as to have made them an increasingly large part of the league's sales pitch. If it seems perverse that the league is more eager to sell the fantasy of owning and disciplining some of the world's greatest athletes than it is to simply turn those players loose to play where everyone can watch, that is mostly because that is a totally perverse inclination. But the point is that the only people to whom this does not seem perverse at all—to whom, in fact, it seems not just wise but moral—are the ones in charge of everything.
This league belongs to those men, in the sense that they own its franchises and the exclusive services of a thick and certain commissioner; in the most basic way, the NFL's players work for them. What makes NFL games so stuffy and stilted and inert, when they're bad, is when those obsessions overtake the game itself and slow it to a crawl. What makes those games worth watching, when they're worth watching, is the game's capacity to break through and surprise despite all that. The people that manage the NFL believe that the league can only be helped by them managing it ever more vigorously, and it's hard to imagine anything convincing them otherwise. An alternative is right there in front of them, laughing and dancing and doing unimaginable and awe-ing things. If they can't see it, at least we can.