Thursday, September 1, 2011

Taking the Fun Out of Football

By Kevin Beane

About 30 miles from my hometown of Akron, Ohio is a small town called Louisville (population 9,186). Their high school football team, the Louisville Leopards, are part of the Northeastern Buckeye Conference, which was part of my beat on The Suburbanite, my first paid sportswriter job.

It had been a very rough week for the high school going into their game against Akron's Walsh Jesuit last Friday. A classmate, Dominic Wilgus, had been killed in a car accident the Monday prior to the game.

One of the pallbearers at Wilgus's funeral was Alex Schooley, a wide receiver for the Leopards. A moment of silence was observed before the game, their season opener. Players were crying in the coach's office, according to Louisville head coach John DeMarco. Indeed, the funeral was held the morning of the game.

So how fitting is it that Schooley was the one who caught a touchdown pass with 1:15 remaining to give the Leopards the lead? Is that not the storybook happy ending we all root for?

But that wasn't the ending, and the ending wasn't happy for anyone except Walsh and their fans.

You see, Schooley and a couple teammates pointed skyward during the touchdown celebration to honor their classmate. Big mistake. The referee flagged them for excessive celebration, marked off a 15-yard penalty on the ensuing kickoff, which significantly shortened the field for Walsh en route to their game-winning field goal.

I know what your thinking: what a horrific, disgusting, self-centered act by the players to point to the sky like that. Thank God that karma went on to bite 'em in the ass, eh?

Jokes aside, take a look at the video. Would you consider this "excessive celebration" even not knowing about the tragic backstory?

The ref reportedly did not know. So what? For one thing, how many times have you seen a player pointing to the sky after scoring a touchdown, hitting a home run, or whatever? I've seen it a lot, and I've always assumed, always, that it was a gesture to a loved one who passed on. Am I crazy? Isn't that why you do that? Every time?

Secondly, I am at my wits' end at the crackdown on enthusiasm in sports in general and football in particular. As I've said in this column before, don't you want the players on your team to care enough to be elated after leading their team to, if not victory, at least points? We bash, bash, bash athletes at every turn on the professional, collegiate, and even high school level. We demand that they be perfect citizens and perfect teammates. Woe betide that lady or gentleman who says or does the slightest thing indicating that their life isn't completely dedicated to delivering the team you spend your hard-earned dollars to see.

But that's still not enough! As much as you, the hypothetical fan, go berserk when your team scores the crucial touchdown, you expect them to react like eunuch choirboys when they do something good. It's a no-win situation for the players, and I'm tired of it.

It gets worse. This year, the NCAA is enacting a new rule: If you are deemed to be celebrating en route to the end zone, it's now a spot foul, meaning the touchdown will be waved off. It doesn't have to be a taunting celebration either — things like high-stepping into the end zone while you are in the clear are fair game. Can't wait for the first touchdown to be rescinded thanks to this new rule. I have to think it will occur this very Saturday, Week 1, and it will be all over the news.

It's a ridiculous rule, and its passage is rooted in the contempt the rule-makers have for players. Celebrations, the ones that don't involve taunting opponents, are inherently good, positive things. Chad Ochocinco's legendary celebrations, for which he was fined again and again and again by the NFL, were unfailingly good-natured, silly, and humorous. Far from penalizing this sort of triumphant enthusiasm, we should be encouraging it.

But, no. Instead, we conflate these celebrations with a lack of humility, which is bull. Yes, I understand that OMG, THESE GUYS ARE RICH AND FAMOUS FOR PLAYING A KID'S GAME, THEY SHOULD LICK EVERY FAN'S SHOES IN GRATITUDE!, but as events in Ohio proved last week, we don't even care to differentiate anymore between an elaborate choreographed touchdown routine and a small town player's common, understated tribute to a comrade. Dominic Wilgus would be so proud.

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