Friday, January 13, 2012

Celebrate Good Times...Nuh-uh!

Even casual fans who don’t watch games regularly know how special it is to score a touchdown.  Games are hard-fought, players play with intensity and emotion and 100 yards is a lot further than you might think.  That’s why it’s perfectly understandable that players may sometimes get carried away in the excitement of the moment and carry on with some crazy celebration in the end zone.  Right?  Not according to the NFL.  Today we take a look at the rule prohibiting “excessive celebrations.”

According to football lore, touchdown celebrations began in 1965 when New York Giants receiver Homer Jones “spiked” the football, throwing down at his feet after scoring a touchdown.   More recent generations of players have continued to put their own stamp on post-TD jubilation:

·         In 1988, rookie Cincinnati Bengals running back Ickey Woods made a household name for himself by developing a touchdown dance dubbed the “Ickey Shuffle.”

Note, though, that Ickey would not have been fined for his actions in this video, since he did it on the sidelines.

·         In 1998, Atlanta Falcons players developed the “Dirty Bird” dance to celebrate touchdowns; they won the NFC Championship that year, too.

·         In a Monday Night Football game during the 2002 season, San Francisco wide receiver Terrell Owens pulled out a Sharpie and autographed a football after scoring a touchdown against the Seattle Seahawks.  He was fined $20,000 by the NFL.

·         In 2003, New Orleans receiver Joe Horn upped the ante by using props unrelated to the game.  After scoring a touchdown, he approached the uprights, where he pulled up the padding surrounding the post and pulled out a cell phone that had been hidden there.  This bit of showmanship drew a $30,000 fine.

The real innovator of end zone exuberance, though, is receiver Chad Ochocinco (nee Chad Johnson—he has even changed his surname to advance the cause of sports entertainment).  In 2005, while with the Cincinnati Bengals, Chad took celebrating to a whole new level with a series of original celebrations; people tuned in to Bengals games just to see what he would do next.  The most famous examples include:  a rendition of the Irish “River Dance”; a mock proposal to Cincinnati cheerleader; putting the ball with a pylon; and performing CPR on the football.  He even celebrated by holding up a sign that read “Dear NFL, Please don’t fine me AGAIN!!!!!”  How postmodern of him.  Incidentally, he was fined $10,000 by the league for that stunt.

After the 2005 season, the league redoubled its efforts to rein in what it considered to be unsportsmanlike behavior by men paid to play a sport for entertainment (can you tell how I come out on this?).  The rules were amended to expand the scope of prohibited activities and there was a new emphasis on enforcing those rules, which had been in effect for several years, in varying degrees of severity.  The following is the text of the rule as it currently stands (see Rule 12, Sec. 3, Art. 1):

There shall be no unsportsmanlike conduct…Such acts specifically include, among others:

…(c)       The use of baiting or taunting acts or words that engender ill will between teams

(d)          Individual players involved in prolonged or excessive celebrations.  Players are prohibited from engaging in any celebrations while on the ground.  A celebration shall be deemed excessive or prolonged if a player continues to celebrate after a warning from an official.

(e)          Two-or-more players engage[d] in prolonged, excessive, premeditated or choreographed celebrations.

(f)           Possession or use of foreign or extraneous object(s) that are not part of the uniform during the game on the field or the sideline, or using the ball as a prop.

Notice the wording of subparagraph (d) about celebrating while on the ground.  Once a player goes to the ground in celebration he will violate the rule.  That means, for example, that players can’t make snow angels, they can’t slide and they can’t do the “worm” (which might not be a bad thing). 

So, why the crackdown on touchdown celebrations?

Presumably, the league was concerned that such outpourings of unbridled enthusiasm exhibited poor sportsmanship, a trait to be curbed.  There are also feelings that such displays draw focus to the individual player instead of the team.  Yet another argument is that excessive celebrating, especially when premeditated or anticipated, is a distraction—for the players and fans—from where attention should be.

I can understand these arguments, but it still seems like the league is taking itself a bit too seriously here.  These concerns are very relevant at the lower levels, especially youth and high school, where players are still learning about the game and how to be a good sport.  However, at the professional level, aren’t players being paid to play a game, the sole purpose of which is to entertain the masses?  When Chad Ochocinco was showcasing his celebrating talents, viewers were tuning in just to see what he might do if he scored.  

Moreover, players at the “skill” positions (like wide receivers), and many defensive players, are taught early that confidence and swagger is just as much a part of their game as athleticism.  And this is a trait that we, as fans, eat up.  It seems counterintuitive to try to squash the swaggering instinct.  Doesn’t it?

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