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Ridiculous Ruling: Celebration Nation, Unite!

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By Ross Mandel on October 13, 2010

Before I begin, allow me to disclose the following: I am a New York Giants fan, and consequently, I loathe the Dallas Cowboys. However, what transpired on Sunday during the Dallas-Tennessee game was ridiculous, even to a Cowboy hater.

With 4:36 remaining in regulation, Jason Witten hauled in a Tony Romo pass for an 18-yard touchdown. Despite their game-long struggles, Dallas had tied the game at 27. Certainly it was an emotional spot, one worthy of celebration. Witten handed the ball to lineman Marc Colombo, who spiked it, then chest-bumped Witten in a clearly spontaneous burst of joy.

Colombo, being a large and somewhat uncoordinated/goofy man, fell to the ground following the chest-bump. Referees then flagged him for excessive celebration because he “went to the ground” to celebrate. Here, directly from the NFL rulebook, are the passages which cover such penalties:

Section 3, Article 1, subsections c, d, and e:

(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 in prolonged, excessive, premeditated, or choreographed celebrations.

Colombo wasn’t taunting anyone and his actions were hardly excessive. He and Witten were not involved in prolonged or choreographed celebration, nor was their reaction premeditated. It was a spontaneous celebration during which a player fell to the ground. There was no malice intended. It didn’t embarrass anyone other than Colombo. Yet the referees, who have no doubt been handed a mandate from the League’s higher-ups to crack down on such transgressions, decided to penalize Dallas 15 yards on the kickoff…with 4:30 remaining in a tie game. And don’t misunderstand—the refs DID make a decision. The rule is subject to interpretation; it’s not a block in the back or a facemask infraction. But we all know that the League wants that penalty called.

Side note: It’s funny (not to Dallas fans) that on the very next possession, Chris Johnson celebrated his second touchdown of the day by reenacting the infamous Terrell Owens star-stance celebration. No penalty was called.

As a result of the Colombo penalty, Dallas’ David Buehler had to kickoff from the 15-yard line. Of his previous four kickoffs, two were touchbacks and the Titans’ average starting field position from the two which were returned was their 24-yard line. However, this kickoff had no chance of being a touchback. Tennessee return man Marc Mariani took advantage of the situation and brought the kick back 73 yards to the Dallas 11. Of course Dallas could have covered the kick properly, but the fact that Buehler—who is a kickoff specialist—didn’t have a chance to kick it deep into the end zone is an issue. It stems from the larger, more systemic problem of old men in a stuffy room making rules which govern young men who play a highly emotional game on a football field.

It’s not easy to score a touchdown in the NFL. It never has been. Most of the men who make the “celebration” rules have never scored a touchdown. Those who may have are reacting to current-day celebrations as if they’ve forgotten what it’s like and what players go through to achieve that height. It’s a shame. I grew up watching the Fun Bunch, Billy “White Shoes” Johnson, Ickey Woods, and countless others who entertained with their originality and individuality. If the opposition took offense to these celebrations, they dealt with it on the field.

No one considered the Ickey Shuffle taunting. No one thought the Fun Bunch was anything but fun. Eventually, as is the case with most things, the celebrations evolved. Props were brought into the equation. Routines were planned and acted out. I understand that some might be bothered by the Joe Horn cell phone celebration (even though it happened against my team, I thought it was highly entertaining). I get that Terrell Owens’ Sharpie usage might be annoying and self-serving. But you know what? The League managed to survive. Individuality is stripped down enough in the NFL, but that’s the way the stuffy old men in their conference rooms want it.

Yes, let’s worry about a guy being creative because a couple of fans might get the wrong idea about our precious League. Guess what? We already have the right idea about your sacred League. We see it every day on television: assaults, harassments, DUIs, drug usage…and still we come back to the game. You’re telling me that a player dancing in the end zone is going to alienate us to the point of abandonment…that touchdown celebrations are the problem? Colombo’s penalty received the same punishment as a dirty hit. There’s a problem with that. I wish the Union would add a “no more penalties for end zone celebrations” clause to the CBA that’s coming. After the lockout, everyone’s going to be freaking out; they could slip it in there.

Listen, I’m not in favor of getting in someone’s face after a touchdown; that should be an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. But when someone scores a touchdown they should be allowed to celebrate in an unrestricted manner. If you’re on the other team and you don’t like it, you can either give that player extra attention the next time he has the ball, or stop him from scoring in the first place. I miss the individuality of the creative touchdown celebration. I liked watching Ochocinco do his thing. I thought TO’s use of pompoms was hysterical. And if people didn’t like it, isn’t the League savvy enough to recognize that every sport…every game needs a villain?

I’ll concede that the use of props is excessive. But what’s the downside of allowing prop-free celebrations, even if they’re premeditated or group oriented? The League will look bad? Seriously? The bottom line is that the old men in suits are disconnected from the men on the field, and to a lesser degree, the fans. These rule-makers are acting like the worst of all possible stuffed shirts…they’re acting like baseball folks.

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