- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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Last month, the NCAA presided over a championship during which -- if flags were thrown in this sport -- hundreds might have been tossed for the excessive celebration.
This behavior exists in virtually every collegiate athletic competition, and for the most part nobody gives it any mind at all. In fact, it's not even considered a negative thing. So why is it a point of emphasis in football?
The debate over the salute by Kansas State wide receiver Adrian Hilburn after a touchdown catch in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl on Dec. 30 mostly centered on whether the officials overreacted in interpreting what's essentially a wide-open judgment call. The Wildcats, who'd pulled within 36-34 of Syracuse with just over a minute left in the game, were penalized 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct, forcing their ensuing two-point conversion attempt from the 17-yard line.
The Wildcats didn't convert and lost the game. Of course, they might not have converted from the standard distance. Or they may have, and then still lost in overtime. But the penalty made the conversion more difficult, obviously, leaving many to wonder about what purpose was served.
Big Ten referee Todd Geerlings told a pool reporter after the game, "These kinds of excessive celebrations have been a priority in the rulebook for the last several years. There's a whole page in the rulebook pertaining to sportsmanship."
The specific rule (9-2-1d) states a penalty is justified for "any delayed, excessive, prolonged or choreographed act by which a player attempts to focus attention on himself [or themselves]."
It's absurd to suggest the salute was delayed, excessive, prolonged or choreographed. So if it's just about Hilburn "drawing attention" to himself heck, didn't he draw attention to himself just by catching a touchdown pass? A quick salute to his team's fans after that is just too big a display of grandstanding?
Detractors of this rule correctly point out that similar actions happen all the time in football and are not called. So flagging it in this case was randomly punitive, doing nothing to promote whatever spirit of good sportsmanship the rule supposedly protects. It instead put an unfair burden on a very disconsolate senior playing in his last college game.
But there's something else to consider in this debate. If the NCAA and the collegiate athletic world are really so worried about stamping out "excessive celebration" and "drawing attention to oneself" (both open to officials' interpretation), why does that concern seem to be centered only on football? What about other college sports?
Exhibit A: volleyball. By the standards of the flag-throwers on Hilburn's salute, volleyball would qualify as the most excessively self-congratulatory sport on the planet. Players quick-huddle and celebrate or commiserate after every point. They clench their fists, jump up and down, fall to their knees, scream to the heavens, gesticulate and generally "draw attention to themselves."
Players making kills or blocks don't attempt to hide their glee at the play they made. Just the opposite. As for "choreographed acts" gee, what about that little dance- thing that four-time national champion Penn State's bench players engage in after some points, where they spread out their arms and "fly" around like birds (or whatever it is that they're doing). That's choreographed, as are the bench-celebration routines of most other teams.
So in volleyball, none of that is considered gaudy self-aggrandizement/taunting to the detriment of being a good sport and deserving of sanction? Instead, it's not only tolerated, but actually part of the sport's culture of joyful enthusiasm and team spirit?
What about goal celebrations in soccer? Yes, sometimes if they go on too long, a yellow card may come out. But for the most part, goal scorers and their jubilant teammates are allowed their moments of "Go, crazy, folks, go crazy!" -- which involves some degree of "Look at me! I scored!" Same goes in field hockey, ice hockey and lacrosse.
In hoops, have you seen any chest bumps lately after someone got fouled while making a basket? Just a few thousand, you say, even though it's only December?
Think there will be any clenched fists and yelling this spring by baseball and softball pitchers after getting a strikeout? Um, isn't that kind of like saluting yourself?
Certainly, each sport is its own entity and can attempt to regulate player behavior as it sees fit. But since everything is under the jurisdiction of the NCAA, with a supposed universal purpose and vision for all participants, why do "celebrations" in football come under so much scrutiny?
As much as any sport, football is a game of emotion and adrenaline, of pushing beyond boundaries of pain, endurance and fear.
Are millions of people entertained by the brutality in football, yet offended by dances, salutes and supposed grandstanding? They don't mind if a young man takes potentially quite serious physical risks to play the sport, but they do mind if he "overly" celebrates his prowess in it?
Is the emphasis on curtailing celebration because of a concern about preventing orchestrated rituals in football that may cross the line to taunting? If so, aren't those likely to be fairly obvious situations? As a means of discouraging something that extreme, do officials really need to even consider penalizing a salute to the crowd?
And for those who may suggest the "celebration" guidelines are different for football because of its vast popularity as a spectator sport, how is that a logical mindset for making rules? If self-celebration is considered bad form for one group of student-athletes, why not for all?
The NCAA and football officials need to admit that this particular emphasis on behavior clearly went so far overboard in regard to Hilburn and Kansas State as to defy common sense. That is, unless they think it's all right for pretty much all other college athletes to do what football players supposedly shouldn't.
Mechelle Voepel is a columnist for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In football, the NCAA takes a strict stand when it comes to celebrations. But if there really are sportsmanship issues, why is "spirit" encouraged in nearly every other sport?