Do NFL players, coaches face fines for criticizing officials?

In a span of hours Sunday, three of the NFL’s most prominent players voiced biting criticism of specific game officials and/or their calls. A week ago, a coach who sits on the competition committee said he expected a “bulls—” response from NFL senior vice president of officiating Dean Blandino to concerns he planned to express.

The protests have been raw, emotional and understandable. Together, they paint a picture of significant unrest with the way games have been administered. They also reinforce the notion that many of the league’s employees have lost respect for the league’s central authority and are increasingly unconcerned about expressing it.

All of which brings up a fair question: Doesn’t the NFL prohibit such criticism and enforce those rules with fines? In college football, of course, we hear regularly about coaches facing huge NCAA fines for postgame criticism of officiating. It erodes public confidence in the product, for one, and in some cases it’s simply an inaccurate assessment based on emotion rather than a close inspection of video or detailed analysis of the rules.

The technical answer is yes. The NFL policy manual, distributed annually around the league, states: “Please note that public criticism by players or club employees of game officials or officiating is prohibited and is subject to fines and/or suspensions.”

But in reality, this policy is separate from the rigid and collectively bargained fine schedule for violations such as taunting, hits to the head and throwing a football into the stands. Discipline in verbal cases is more malleable and — dare I say — reasonable. There are certainly documented instances of NFL players or coaches paying fines for public criticism, but the league considers the circumstances of the offense and typically works on a timetable that is longer than the one-week response it gives to other postgame fines.

Washington Redskins cornerback Josh Norman kicked off the assault Sunday in London, hammering field judge Brad Freeman after his team was called for 15 penalties in a tie with the Cincinnati Bengals. Freeman “sucked,” said Norman, who was called for five penalties himself. (One was declined.)

Norman called on Freeman to be “reprimanded” by the NFL and suggested the Redskins were subject to stricter interpretations of rules because the game was played overseas.

Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, meanwhile, said that referee Ed Hochuli’s failure to call more than two penalties on the New Orleans Saints was “egregious.” The Saints had entered the game averaging 7.5 accepted penalties per game and Sherman was particularly upset about what he considered missed calls for offensive pass interference and a false start.

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