The 2013 NFL Rulebook is clear: "There shall be no unsportsmanlike conduct." It gives specific examples:
Article 1: Prohibited Acts. 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.
In the slopfest that was the New England Patriots' 13–10 victory over the New York Jets in Week 2, Jets offensive lineman D'Brickashaw Ferguson decided to ignore that rule during a last-minute melee. The fight broke out after Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib's game-winning interception; Jets center Nick Mangold decided to go for a late hit which should lighten Mangold's wallet by a few grand.
But then Ferguson decided to do this:
He threw a punch at an opposing player. Unfortunately for Ferguson, the rulebook is also clear on the penalties for violating the unsportsmanlike conduct rule:
Penalty: (for a through h): Loss of 15 yards from the succeeding spot or whatever spot the Referee, after consulting with the crew, deems equitable. If the foul is by the defense, it is also an automatic first down.
If the infraction is flagrant, the player is also disqualified. If the foul is by the defense, it is also an automatic first down.
According to the NFL Network commentators for the game, Ferguson threw multiple punches, so his ejection was an obvious one.
Making things even worse, though, another Jets lineman, Willie Colon, one-upped Ferguson. Here's the move that got Colon flagged for ejection:
The NFL Rulebook is explicit here, too:
Article 1: Prohibited Acts. . . . Such acts specifically include, among others:
(g) Unnecessary physical contact with a game official.
Again, the penalty here is a personal foul, plus disqualification. Given that NFL players have been ejected for accidentally striking referees in the past, this disqualification was perfectly justified. But then Colon went one step further:
Here, Colon shoves the referee who is trying to remove him from the fracas. And the rulebook is even more clear on one last point (italics in the original, boldface mine):
Note 1: Under no condition is an official to allow a player to shove, push, or strike him in an offensive, disrespectful, or unsportsmanlike manner. Any such action must be reported to the Commissioner.
Based on recent history, it is all but a given that Mangold, Ferguson, and Colon will all be fined for their actions; according to ESPN's Adam Schefter, the NFL is already reviewing the fight.
However, if the NFL wants to reduce the number of bench-clearing brawls that break out late in games, they must levy meaningful penalties in the aftermath. Without further discipline, Ferguson and Colon will get off with a true slap on the wrist. They were sent packing with less than a minute to play on a rainy evening where the Jets offense would not touch the ball again.
At an absolute minimum, the NFL needs to suspend Colon for the Jets' Week 3 game to send a message that striking an official is absolutely off-limits. If I were NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, I would also suspend Ferguson to send a message that even when the game gets chippy, teams need to make their statements with their play, not with extracurriculars after the whistle.