Excessive Celebration or Excessive Penalization in College Football?

As you may have read, I was at the Michigan-Notre Dame game. Midway through the fourth quarter, immediately after ND had taken a one-point lead, the Irish scored a two-point conversion on a well-executed trick play. Notre Dame QB Jimmy Clausen faked a pass before handing off behind his back to running back Armando Allen. Clausen was taken to the turf by several Michigan defenders, but of course he didn’t have the ball. Allen ran untouched into the endzone.

Once it was clear that ND was going to score, I shifted my eyes back to Clausen. He was sitting on the grass, shaking his legs and arms as if he were riding a horse, or something. I don’t know. It was weird. But it was certainly celebratory and when I heard a referee announce an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against the Irish, I certainly thought it was for that.

It wasn’t until later that night that I learned Allen was the one who was penalized. I was surprised. Then I read about, and eventually saw a picture of, the act that drew the flag.

Allen had taken a step or two past the back of the endzone, looked up at the crowd, and put his pointer finger in front of his lips, the universal symbol for “be quiet.”

I highly doubt this was premeditated, and it only lasted for a second or two. Yet it drew a flag anyway. This is not the first questionable unsportsmanlike penalty call I have seen in this young season and certainly not the most egregious. It’s just one example from a game I attended.

Before every season, in addition to an updated rulebook, officials release a statement outlining certain calls they will be on the lookout for in the upcoming season.

One of the items the officials noted for the 2009 season was unsportsmanlike penalties. The NCAA Football Rules Committee included this in the statement it released in February:

“After reviewing a number of plays involving unsportsmanlike conduct, the committee is firm in its support of the unsportsmanlike conduct rules as they currently are written and officiated. Many of these fouls deal with players who inappropriately draw attention to themselves in a pre-meditated, excessive or prolonged manner.

I wholeheartedly disagree with that statement, which in my opinion is a gross exaggeration. To say that many of the unsportsmanlike penalties are assessed to players who act in the manner described is simply untrue.

Was Allen’s “crowd shush” premeditated? Excessive? Prolonged? Excessive is the only aspect of the rule he may have broken, but I don’t think he did.

Surely you recall Jake Locker, who just led the Washington Huskies to a win over USC last Saturday, scoring a last-second touchdown against BYU last year. He tossed the ball over his shoulder in excitement, drawing a flag and forcing his team to attempt a longer-than-usual extra point, which was blocked. Washington lost by one.

Then there’s this from the rulebook, which will also get you a flag: “An unopposed ball carrier obviously altering stride as he approaches the opponent’s goal line or diving into the end zone.” If I were writing the rules, I wouldn’t include that, but at least I understand it. It’s obvious taunting.

The thing is, in that Michigan-ND game I attended, Irish receiver Golden Tate, known for his showboating more so than his teammate, Allen, caught a pass near the sideline, shook his defender to the ground around the 10-yard line, and trotted sideways into the endzone, holding the ball away from his body with one hand. No flags were thrown.

Now I’m not complaining that Tate’s actions didn’t draw a penalty. But the rulebook states it should have been called.

Much like pass interference and holding, unsportsmanlike fouls are open to some interpretation by the refs. I have no problem with them exercising their judgment — they’re just not doing a good job of that.

I’ve heard the NFL referred to as the No Fun League. While the NFL rulebook might restrict players off the field, often fining them for seemingly harmless behavior, they are free to celebrate on the field far more than college players.

I’m not saying college players need to be pulling cellphones out of the goalposts. That’s premeditated and stupid. But they should be allowed to celebrate after they’ve made a good play. A chest pounding, a call for fans to get loud (or quiet down), a flexing of the bicep — these are natural displays of emotion, not penalty-worthy offenses.

So officials, please let the kids have some fun. If they aren’t delaying the game or taunting the opponent, what’s the harm in a little celebration?

2 thoughts on “Excessive Celebration or Excessive Penalization in College Football?”

  1. You're right, if any penalty were to be assessed it should have been on Tate. Keep in mind though that Tate's showboating was immediately preceded by two dropped touchdown passes that would have haunted him forever. So, he wasn't expressing "I'm the man and you suck"; it was more like "there ya go, I'm not a complete choker and thanks goodness I finally scored because fair weather Irish fan would have never let me hear the end of it".

  2. Further, College Football isn't Law and Order. How can the refs be expected to get inside the players' heads to determine malicious intent (i.e., meditated)!?! There has yet to be a college football player to go "ochocinco" and tweet before the game about taunting the crowd and then execute on his promise. Pros get paid by advertisers and advertisers want their brands associated with good clean fun. On the other hand, college players play for the love of the game with only a select few having a chance for the NFL.

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