Bowing to fan pressure, NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue yesterday relaxed penalties against players who high-five fans and throw footballs into stands.
Players still will be "subject to" a $1,000 fine for sending footballs into the crowd, but neither that act nor shaking hands with fans will cost a team a 5-yard penalty.
Excessive, prolonged or provocative demonstrations on the field or in the end zone still will result in a 5-yard penalty. Taunting is still a 15-yard penalty.
The league received more than 70 letters of protest after Denver quarterback John Elway was fined and the Broncos penalized for flipping a ball to a fan in a wheelchair during the first week of play. From now on, Elway still would be subject to the $1,000 fine, but the team wouldn't be penalized.
While the league will continue to police the throwing of footballs, Tagliabue urged individual clubs to enforce their own rules regarding other interplay with fans. He said it is a crowd control issue that officials should not have to police because it has no bearing on the game.
When Detroit quarterback Rodney Peete slapped hands with fans after a touchdown run last week, the Lions were penalized and the club (not Peete) was fined $1,000.
"I would tell Rodney to do it again," Detroit coach Wayne Fontes said.
Under the new rules, the Lions would not be penalized or fined. Instead, the league is encouraging teams to "handle the matter responsibly within their normal stadium security operations."
After three weeks, the league said 12 penalties had been called for excessive or prolonged demonstrations. Nine were for either throwing the ball into the stands or high-fiving fans.
"After seeing the fan reaction to these particular penalties, it became apparent that a kinder, gentler approach was needed," Tagliabue said.
New Orleans Saints president Jim Finks, chairman of the Competition Committee that reaffirmed and strengthened the policies this season, objected to Tagliabue's backpedal.
"I'm not backing down from any one of the rules we approved," Finks said, noting teams voted for the policy. Finks said to allow 28 different policies on slapping hands with fans will be "chaotic."
As for player celebrations after touchdowns or big plays, Tagliabue said he reviewed enforcement procedure with league director of officiating Jerry Seeman to make certain that penalties are imposed only when the demonstrations are "excessive, prolonged or likely to provoke retaliation."
The league originally adopted the rules in 1984 to eliminate unsportsmanlike acts. Clubs thought enforcement was getting lax, so the Competition Committee reaffirmed them.