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Hefferon: Excessive Celebration (Nov. 15)

Jack Hefferon | Monday, November 14, 2011

We’ve entered the part of the college football season where the games truly start to matter. Oklahoma and Alabama are still on the hunt for a national championship despite earlier defeats, while Saturday’s losers, Boise State and Stanford, are all but eliminated from contention. For all the chatter about the need for a college football playoff, the BCS system (while inadequate) does create a playoff-type atmosphere for certain games, and that madness will continue all the way up through the conference championships.

With that much hanging on every game, the possibility lurks that a crucial contest will be won and lost, millions of dollars will pass from hand to hand and an invitation to the national championship will fall just out of reach because of college football’s newest excessive celebration rule.

It was already bad enough.

In years past, excessive celebration penalties have been a necessary evil in the NCAA rulebooks, drawing a line in the sand to keep the college game out of the obscenity and taunting that celebrations often turn into. However, that line is one of the fuzzier distinctions in sports. What’s deemed excessive by one referee can be tame to another, and that creates way too much wiggle room for bias or — God forbid — fixing games.

This happened in last year’s Pinstripe Bowl, when a Kansas State receiver scored a last-second touchdown to pull his teammates within two points of Syracuse. But when he saluted the crowd after crossing the goal line, he was flagged for excessive celebration. Instead of attempting a two-point conversion from the 2, the Wildcats were forced to move back to the 17-yard-line and Syracuse survived the scare to win the game.

That gesture was later ruled by the official’s superiors to be innocuous and not worthy of a flag, but that official had already decided a bowl game and defined a team’s season. The damage was done.

While the rule may have been painful before, the NCAA exacerbated the problem over the offseason. Officials ruled that a player who celebrates before entering the end zone would be marked down at the spot of the celebration, a 15-yard penalty assessed and the touchdown taken off the board.

This rule claimed its first victim this year in a ho-hum, irrelevant game between two schools you’ve probably never heard of: Florida and current No. 1 LSU.

With a shot at a national championship hanging in the balance on every play, LSU had a touchdown wiped out when their punter, Brad Wing, kept the ball on a fake and scampered 52 yards down the sideline for a score. But because Wing extended his arms and looked back at the defense before crossing the plane, Wing’s hard-earned moment in the sun was stripped from him and LSU settled for a field goal.

It’s hard to blame Wing. With 90,000 people screaming at the top of their lungs for the players, it’s hard to expect anyone to totally shut their elation out and cruise nonchalantly downfield as if they were out for a morning jog.

“The emotions just got the better of me,” a crushed Wing said after the game. “I dream all the time about getting in the end zone, and it was finally going to happen. Punters don’t really get in the end zone a lot, so I was just very excited.”

Is that really what we want to enforce in college football? With all of the terrible news coming out of places like Penn State, Miami and Ohio State, wasn’t this one of the feel-good stories that makes us love college sports? This was the biggest moment of a young man’s career — the first thing millions of fans would think of when they heard his name. Instead, it was stripped away by the fun police.

College football is, to many, up there with apple pie and the stars and stripes as one of the core institutions in our country. When we celebrate America’s biggest victory, our triumph over the British and our declaration to the world of freedom and independence, what do we do? Do we go meekly about our daily routines without acknowledging the feat? Do we apologize to the king and queen, and perhaps invite them over for a conciliatory cup of tea?

No.

We find the biggest, loudest, brightest fireworks we can and blow them up. Celebrating a hard-won victory as obnoxiously and flashily as possible is the American thing to do.

Flag that, NCAA.