Where do different sports draw the line on "sledging” and “taunting"? - Part 2 – Basketball and American Football

Published 23 December 2015 | Authored by: Lloyd Thomas

This two-part article looks at “sledging” or “taunting” in sport, which describes the practice of using insulting, intimidating or provocative language or behaviour against an opponent to try and gain a competitive advantage.

Part 1 of this article analysed how “sledging” is regulated within cricket and tennis and the differing approaches taken by the governing bodies.

Part 2 below moves on to compare how “taunting” is regulated within basketball and American football and how their respective governing bodies approach the issue.



What approach is taken towards “taunting” or “trash-talking”?

The NBA’s Regulation

Under Rule 4 of the Official Rules of the National Basketball Association (the “NBA Rules”),1 a technical foul is defined as:

…the penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct or violations by team members on the floor or seated on the bench.

Unsportsmanlike conduct is defined under the NBA Rules as follows:

To be unsportsmanlike is to act in a manner unbecoming to the image of professional basketball. It consists of acts of deceit, disrespect of officials and profanity. The penalty for such action is a technical foul. Repeated acts shall result in expulsion from the game and a minimum fine of $2,000.

Rule 12, Section V (Conduct)2 states further that:

"a. An official may assess a technical foul, without prior warning, at any time. A technical foul(s) may be assessed to any player on the court or anyone seated on the bench for conduct which, in the opinion of an official, is detrimental to the game. The technical foul must be charged to an individual. A technical foul cannot be assessed for physical contact when the ball is alive.

EXCEPTION: Fighting fouls and/or taunting with physical contact…

…d. A technical foul shall be assessed for unsportsmanlike tactics such as:

(1) Disrespectfully addressing an official

(2) Physically contacting an official

(3) Overt actions indicating resentment to a call

(4) Use of profanity

(5) A coach entering onto the court without permission of an official

(6) A deliberately-thrown elbow or any attempted physical act with no contact involved

(7) Taunting

e. Cursing or blaspheming an official shall not be considered the only cause for imposing technical fouls. Running tirades, continuous criticism or griping may be sufficient cause to assess a technical. Excessive misconduct shall result in ejection from the game." (Emphasis added).

Thus, under the NBA Rules, a player may be subject to sanction if they are found to have taunted an opponent (whether playing or sat on the bench) or any other person sat on the bench. Under Rule 12, section VII,3 the sanction for such conduct is ejection and a range of fines.

Sanctions and fines

Those fines, during regular season,4 are as follows:

Technical Fouls 1 – 5: $2,000 fine each

Technical Fouls 6 – 10: $3,000 fine each

Technical Fouls 11-15: $4,000 fine each (with a warning letter sent when the violator reaches his 10th technical foul)

Technical Foul 16: $5,000 fine plus one-game suspension

Each Additional Technical Foul: $5,000 fine

Each Two Additional Technical Fouls (18, 20, 22 etc.): $5,000 fine plus one-game suspension.

For the first ejection for a technical foul, the player will be fined $2,000 and for each subsequent ejection, the offender will have imposed on them the last ejection fine together with an additional $2,000 fine. However, the NBA Rules also state that:

Whether or not said player(s) is ejected, a fine not exceeding $50,000 and/or suspension may be imposed upon such player(s) by the Commissioner at his sole discretion.

The sanctions for being found guilty of taunting are therefore wide and, depending on the circumstances in play, flexible. Aside from the rigid fine schedule, whether a player is ejected for such conduct or not, the Commissioner of the NBA may subsequently impose a fine “not exceeding $50,000.

As with the position under both cricket and tennis, the NBA has built into its rules a degree of flexibility to supplement its set fine schedule, in order to reflect the seriousness or otherwise of a taunting offence (or other technical foul).

Example: Marco Belinelli

Such flexibility was applied by the NBA in its treatment of Chicago Bulls shooting guard Marco Belinelli.

After making an important three-pointer shot in the fourth quarter of the Bulls’ victory over the Brooklyn Nets, Belinelli did what has become known as the “Sam Cassell Dance”, a gesture which involved Belinelli cupping his genitalia in the direction of his opponents, after scoring. The NBA took a dim view of such conduct and fined Belinelli $15,000.5

The NBA’s video rulebook for referees cites an example of taunting by former Miami Heat player Dwyane Wade, where Wade scores, then stands over his opponent. The video rule book states:6

This is an example of a Technical Foul for unsportsmanlike conduct for taunting. The taunting of opponents is never permitted and actions of this nature are to be penalized immediately. On this play, the actions by the player in the black uniform [Wade] after the successful basket, as well as any pointing in an opponents [sic] face or standing over an opponent on the floor in a confrontational manner, are just a few of the examples of unsportsmanlike acts that are considered to be taunting.

Yet while the NBA Rules contravene any such conduct, much like sledging in cricket, “trash talking” is often accepted as part of the gamesmanship and mind games which are part of basketball. While a technical foul for taunting, which will fall in the category of unsportsmanlike conduct, will result in a set fine, the NBA Rules explicitly reserve flexibility to impose a further fine of up to $50,000 for particularly egregious offences. 

American Football

The NFL’s Regulations

The Official Playing Rules of the National Football League (the “NFL”) (the “NFL Rules”) are clear that taunting offences are strictly prohibited. Section 3, article 1 of the NFL Rules sets out the offences which the NFL considers to constitute unsportsmanlike conduct and are therefore “prohibited acts”.7 This article states as follows:

There shall be no unsportsmanlike conduct. This applies to any act which is contrary to the generally understood principles of sportsmanship. Such acts specifically include, among others:

(a) Throwing a punch, or a forearm, or kicking at an opponent, even though no contact is made.

(b) Using abusive, threatening, or insulting language or gestures to opponents, teammates, officials, or representatives of the League.

(c) Using baiting or taunting acts or words that engender ill will between teams.

(d) Prolonged or excessive celebrations or demonstrations by an individual player. Players are prohibited from engaging in any celebrations or demonstrations while on the ground. A celebration or demonstration shall be deemed excessive or prolonged if a player continues to celebrate or demonstrate after a warning from an official.

(e) Two or more players engaging in prolonged, excessive, premeditated, or choreographed celebrations or demonstrations.

(f) Possession or use of foreign or extraneous object(s) that are not part of the uniform on the field or the sideline during the game.

(g) Using the ball or any other object including pylons, goal posts, or crossbars, as a prop.

(h) Unnecessary physical contact with a game official.

(i) Removal of his helmet by a player in the field of play or the end zone during a celebration or demonstration, or during a confrontation with a game official or any other player.8(Emphasis added).

The notes to section 3, article 1 state that a violation of (b) or (c) (i.e. taunting offences), which occur before or during the game, may result in a player been disqualified as well as the imposition of a yardage penalty. Any violations on the day of a game, including post-game, may also result in discipline by the NFL Commissioner.9

Unlike the relevant rules and regulations in force in cricket, tennis and basketball, the NFL Rules lists specific kinds of behaviour which the NFL has prohibited. The notes make clear that a violation of these rules will be penalised if any of the acts are committed directly at an opponent.

Those specific acts include, but are not limited to: sack dances; home run swings; incredible hulks; spiking the ball; spinning the ball; throwing or shoving the ball; pointing; pointing the ball; verbal taunting; military salutes; standing over an opponent (prolonged and with provocation); or dancing. Further, types of behaviour which may breach the rule in (c) includes, but is not limited to: throat slashes; machine-gun salutes; sexually-suggestive gestures; prolonged gyrations; or stomping on a team logo.10

Fine and Appeal Schedule

Pursuant to the NFL and the NFL Players Association’s collective bargaining agreement (“CBA”) a schedule of fines is released on an annual basis. Article 46 of the CBA sets out the relevant discipline process for conduct alleged to be in breach of section 3, article 1 of the NFL Rules. Article 46 states that:

…the Commissioner will promptly send written notice of his action to the player, with a copy to the NFLPA. Within three (3) business days following such written notification, the player affected thereby, or the NFLPA with the player’s approval, may appeal in writing to the Commissioner.

(b) Fines or suspensions imposed upon players for unnecessary roughness or unsportsmanlike conduct on the playing field with respect to an opposing player or players shall be determined initially by a person appointed by the Commissioner after consultation concerning the person being appointed with the Executive Director of the NFLPA, as promptly as possible after the event(s) in question. Such person will send written notice of his action to the player, with a copy to the NFLPA. Within three (3) business days following such notification, the player, or the NFLPA with his approval, may appeal in writing to the Commissioner.

(c) The Commissioner (under Subsection (a)), or the person appointed by the Commissioner under Subsection (b), shall consult with the Executive Director of the NFLPA prior to issuing, for on-field conduct, any suspension or fine in excess of $50,000.

(d) The schedule of fines for on-field conduct will be provided to the NFLPA prior to the start of training camp…11 (Emphasis added).

The 2015 fines and appeal schedule contains detailed information on the minimum fines which may be imposed on players after committing various offences. For taunting offences, a minimum fine of $8,681 may be imposed for a first offence, while a minimum fine of $11,576 may be imposed for a second offence.12

These are minimum fines and the actual amount levied against a player may depend on the severity of the offence.13 The minimum fine for a first instance offence of excessive profanity is $11,576, while the minimum for a second offence is $23,152.14

Example: Marshawn Lynch

The NFL Rules, together with the CBA and fine schedule, therefore provide significant flexibility in terms of dealing with an offence on the merits of each particular case, and the perceived severity thereof. This can be seen from the treatment of a number of players who were found to have contravened the NFL’s rules on unsporting conduct.

In January 2015, the Seattle Seahawks’ running back Marshawn Lynch was found to have made an obscene gesture. The NFL did not specify what the gesture was, but in the Seahawks’ win over Green Bay, Lynch grabbed his crotch after scoring a go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter. Lynch was fined $20,000 for the ‘obscene gesture’.15

In August 2014, the Denver Broncos’ quarterback made vulgar comments towards D. J. Swearinger after the latter’s controversial tackle. Swearinger later stated that Manning had delivered some “choice words” while Manning, for his part, was reported as saying that the $8,268 fine he received for taunting was money well spent.16



Unlike the other sports considered in this article, the NFL Rules are much more prescriptive regarding the types of behaviour which are expressly prohibited. There is no acceptance, as in the ICC Code, that verbal exchanges are part of the sport and that trivial behaviour should not be punished. Yet, in much the same way as the other rules and regulations considered in this article, the NFL Rules provides a flexible mechanism by which conduct contrary to the rules on taunting can be sanctioned. This reflects that offences of the nature of taunting will vary in severity and need to be dealt with accordingly.



Sports governing bodies have taken varying approaches to addressing sledging, taunting, trash talking and assorted other forms of gamesmanship. Those approaches necessarily reflect the differing cultures and inherent natures of different sports.

Cricket, for example, is a sport where the governing body accepts that sledging occurs. The NFL is explicit in its rejection of taunting, expressly listing certain forms of behaviour and certain celebrations which are not acceptable.

All of the rules and regulations considered in this article incorporate an element of flexibility, as they must do. Even where there are more prescriptive regulations, such as the NFL Rules, those regulations provide the ability to address sanctioned behaviour with a scaled and proportionate response.

There is a grey area of determining what is acceptable gamesmanship and what is unacceptable conduct. Different sports governing bodies may take a different approach to answering this question, but their rules and regulations are set up by reference to the same basic structure, i.e. to provide flexibility in order to ensure that any sanction imposed is appropriate to the offence.


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About the Author

Lloyd Thomas

Lloyd Thomas

Lloyd Thomas is an associate in Squire Patton Boggs’ Litigation department and is part of the Sports Law team based in its London office.

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