Sunday, June 27, 2010


The National Collegiate Athletic Association, based in Indianapolis, is the main organization that governs and sets rules for college sports in the United States and Canada. This has put it smack in the middle of a number of controversies lately - if the issue of whether there should be a college-football playoff system were a matter of ethics, I'd have to get a bigger mailbox - but I hadn't previously had occasion to consider an issue brought to my attention by R.C., a reader from Alabama.

"Is the NCAA's rule governing `excessive celebration' fair and ethical?," he asks.

My reader is referring to NCAA Football Rule 9-2, which specifies that a 15-yard penalty be assessed for any "delayed, excessive, prolonged or choreographed act by which a player (or players) attempts to focus attention on himself (or themselves)."

R.C. contends that certain human responses "are innate and therefore uncontrollable." How then, he asks, "can the NCAA expect the very primal instinct to celebrate the accomplishment of a goal, especially one that the individual has likely trained for years to be able to accomplish, to somehow be switched off?"

He further wants to know if it is ethical for the NCAA to profit from the interest in collegiate athletics and then to punish the players for "acting on impulses that are beyond their control?"

After all, R.C. adds, he sees these same impulses played out among the thousands of fans in attendance and untold numbers more watching in homes around the country when they simultaneously throw their hands into the air and scream.

Contending that the "excessive celebration" rule has affected the final outcome of several contests and led to widely publicized outcries from both fans and athletes, R.C. asks: "If the fans, coaches and players have a consensus view of this rule that differs from that of the sanctioning body, is it incumbent upon that body to change the rule?"

R.C.'s question takes on particular relevance given the NCAA's April decision to change its rules so that, starting in 2011, the penalty for taunting an opposing team on the way to scoring a touchdown will include the loss of that touchdown - obviously a potential game-changer. The current taunting rule requires only a 15-yard penalty assessed on the extra-point attempt or subsequent kickoff.

I'm guessing that R.C.'s team may have come out on the wrong side of an "excessive celebration" penalty recently, and I understand his frustration. However, I don't think there's anything unethical about the rule itself.

Fans rarely if ever get to set the rules for organized sports. The NCAA is under no ethical obligation to change its rules simply because the public believes it should. The views of fans - along with those of coaches and players - can and should be taken into account, but ultimately the NCAA's only obligation is to establish the rules that it believes are in the best interest of the game.

Granted, it may be instinctual for a player who scores to want to celebrate his feat or even to rub his opponents' noses in their failure. That doesn't mean that they should be allowed to do so. It also may be instinctual for players to want to poke the other guy in the eye, but the rules don't allow it and that's that.

The ways that players line up, block and tackle are regulated, so why not the ways they celebrate? Particularly since the NCAA rule seems targeted not at spur-of-the-moment exultation but rather at choreographed showmanship that goes beyond the spurs of instinct.

The whole point of rules is to control players' impulses and channel them into sportsmanlike competition. R.C. gives the players too little credit for their ability to do so. Football players control their emotions constantly to avoid penalties, and this is only one more instance of this perennial process.

Coaches make sure that their players understand what's OK and what's not OK when it comes to tackling an opponent. It's up to them to make sure that the players also understand what is and isn't permissible in celebrating a touchdown.

Players who are serious about winning will have no problem mustering the restraint needed to avoid a game-changing penalty.

c.2010 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)


M. Lawrence said...

I believe Jeff is right on all points, but I take issue with R.C.'s assertion that putting on a show in the end zone is instinctive and therefore uncontrollable. How you feel isn't controllable - what you choose to do about it is. One of the things I admired about John Riggins back in his day was that he was not only really good at what he did, he was confident enough to take what he did in stride. No dancing and jumping and carrying on as if he had surprised even himself. He was a class act. Maybe the rule is trying to encourage players to put a little class in their act.

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