Sports Signals

Sports leagues are cracking down hard on athletes who look smug after making a good play.  Football:

A crackdown on excessive touchdown celebrations … has moved from the National Football League to college football and now to high school football games across the country.  In the Washington area this fall, a wide receiver from 13th-ranked McNamara was flagged for pointing to the sky after a touchdown, and a Gwynn Park defender was penalized for pointing up at the sky after intercepting a pass. … “What’s happening is in the old days, there was a certain level of celebration that was allowed. Now it’s basically no celebration,” …

There are some who view the crackdown as necessary — ridding the high school game of the scripted Sharpie-in-the-sock, cellphone-in-the-goalpost-padding type of touchdown celebrations that first appeared in the NFL a few years ago. … The cleanup of those routines earned the NFL a new nickname — the No Fun League … How far can you go before you take the joy out of the sport?…  Federation rule 9-5-1 … reads, in part: “unsportsmanlike manner … Any delayed, excessive or prolonged act by which a player attempts to focus attention upon himself.”


Under a new zero-tolerance policy approved by the NCAA, penalizing excessive celebrations will be a point of emphasis this season. The regulation has left coaches … concerned that one of their sport’s most marketable aspects — its raw emotion — is being legislated out of the game. …

According to ACC officiating supervisor John Clougherty … the crackdown on excessive celebrations is meant to deter players from showing up or embarrassing a member of the opposing team.  Among the actions Clougherty said will be closely monitored are pointing, gesturing …

“It’s definitely going to be tough for all the players, especially when somebody gets dunked on,” said Maryland guard Greivis Vasquez, who’s been known to be excitable on the court from time to time. “You going to just keep your emotions in or you going to say nothing? You just going to be like this [stone-faced]? It’s going to be hard.

Organized sports exist in large part to let athletes look good by winning, and to let fans affiliate with winners.  Athletes commonly call attention to their wins via trophies, rings, team jerseys, score boards, etc.  So how can it be offensive for players to have a little fun by calling attention to their winning plays during a game?

That last quote by Vasquez gets at the key, I think: when it is hard not to brag, not bragging is more impressive than bragging.   Since we want our athletes to be impressive, we want them not to brag.  We don’t mind athletes having fun, but not fun that makes them seem less impressive.

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  • decohere

    I’m unconvinced that regulations on this type of behavior represent anything about what the fans want. Certainly the coaches (“concerned that one of their sport’s most marketable aspects — its raw emotion — is being legislated out of the game”) don’t seem to think so. And it’s hard to see how a nickname like No Fun League sticks if a considerable audience doesn’t agree with the premise. There is clearly a vocal contingent that is anti-celebration and places great emphasis on “winning the right way,” but I encounter plenty of sports fans who think that this is bunk.

  • jonathan

    I see this as part of the trend which imposes moral codes of conduct. This trend has deep roots in American society – see The Great Awakening – but it has flowered anew with the rise of Evangelical fundamentalism and the political advocacy that goes with that.

    Others would argue that it’s the nanny state mentality, that it’s the consequence of liberals believing that no one should affront another without considering feelings.

    And I see these as coming together, conservative moral impositions meeting liberal moral impositions because for them defining what you can’t do has become as important as defining what you can do. Opposites meet in a bad place for normal people.

  • Organized sports exist in large part to let athletes look good by winning, and to let fans affiliate with winners.… So how can it be offensive for players to have a little fun by calling attention to their winning plays during a game?

    Maybe it’s to minimize the bad feelings of the losers. If you’re rooting for the winning team, you don’t mind the hot-dogging. But it’s a different story if you’re rooting for the losers. So maybe it’s a redistributional tactic.

  • Bill

    Regulating good behaviour at games is like regulating good behaviour on blogs.

    Good luck.

  • I’m reminded of the saying, “When you get to the inzone, act like you’ve been there before.” Just as a matter of personal taste, I enjoy a bit of celebration — a spontaneous fist-pump or congratulation makes it appear that the athletes actually care about the game and feel some triumph — but doing a dance in the middle of a game, acting out a routine and/or making use of props is ridiculous. Don’t go big over a small victory.

  • It is to bad that the people who run these leagues don’t have personalities, because then they may understand what is going on. Of course, it maybe that they want to get the games over as quickly as possible in order the save some money. Leave it to the bean counters to spoil all the fun.

  • Marc

    I’m not sure I agree. I don’t take it as given that not bragging is more impressive.

    There is a precedent for this rule. In football (actual football – where you primarily use your foot on the ball – a game that you might mistakenly call soccer) players get cautioned for taking off their shirts in excessive celebration.

    I’ve noticed that whilst I like associating with high status teams, I don’t like being reminded that the individual players are much higher status than myself. My first instinct is to explain the new rules as an effort to prevent players from distinguishing themselves as high status individuals that fans might resent. If the success is subsumed by the team then it might be easier for the fans to relate/affiliate.

    I’m not sure how this would tally with superstar team members that increase a teams popularity (perhaps just by associating with a winning team in spite of the superstar – although this doesn’t ring true) or with man of the match awards – neither of which would be expected given my theory.

  • sweetirony

    Gotta love how America is still influenced by Puritanism.

  • Ross Williams

    For football, celebration penalties actually started in college football. Of course it doesn’t make the story as nice, so the reporter fudged the facts a bit.

  • Ryan Vann

    Call me crazy, but I enjoy over the top, professional wrassling styled entrances, celebrations, and mic work from my athletes; the more creative, the better. It adds a certain element of intrique and larger than life status to the games. Likewise, it makes for great conversation about controversy.

  • Chuck

    I think the justification is that it prevents fights from breaking out.

    “Excessive celebration” I think is (was supposed to be?) a euphemism for taunting.

    What is the name for a rule that bans something because it’s too hard to draw the distinction between an acceptable implementation of something (celebration on scoring) vs an unacceptably implementation of something (taunting on scoring)? If it is not named, it ought to be, lots of things in life are like that. I do it every day with my kids (OMG, I’m a fascist!).

  • Not sure that the ban reflects what the fans want — if they wanted to see athletes look impressive by restraining themselves when the urge to brag is strong, then legislating no bragging defeats the purpose. When players are free to brag, not bragging is a signal of impressiveness; when players are required not to brag, not bragging is a signal of compliance with silly little rules. It goes from ennobling to emasculating.

    I think most fans would see the logic there, so it’s more likely one of these ditches that the regulators have to dig in order to feel like their life has a point.

  • Why do the sports players brag if it makes them less impressive?

    • dhill

      They brag, because they are less impressive. Anyway, that’s a matter of perception.

  • brendan_r

    Here’s a partial explanation: we don’t like to be reminded of how different our favorite players are from us. Like:

    Hey, I went to Cal. The stud NFL wide receiver DeSean Jackson went to Cal. We’re almost buddies!

    And then DeSean Jackson scores a TD and, cups his hand into a “C”, and begins explaining to the defender the sorts of things he’d do to him if they were back in Compton.

    Also, if you’ve never played in a very competitive league in one of the sports tinged with black culture, then you probably vastly underestimate how aggressive such trash talk is. There are good practical reasons for limiting it.

  • brendan_r

    Also, the fact that trash talkers are popular doesn’t fit your idea. In the UFC for example enthusiastic trash talkers sell pay-per-views. The organization gives them big fights faster and promotes the heck out of them. For example, they’re spending record money to promote Conor McGregor’s fight right now, even though he’s a relative newcomer at a weight class (145 lbs) that doesn’t sell well. Why? Because he’s an amazing trash talker.

    Same in the NFL. Jordy Nelson and Dez Bryant are similar quality receiver, but Nelson’s quiet and respectful, whereas Dez is a demonstrative maniac. Dez sells more jerseys, and generally produces more awe.

    Did folks find Ali less impressive for his trash talk?

    • Could it be that in the instances you mention the trash talk itself is impressive. [A trite, supercilious gesture doesn’t do the trick.]

      • brendan_r

        Yes, definitely.

        A trite, supercilious gesture does the trick when it’s conspicuously exaggerated, i.e. a guy lands a knockout punch, he’s no longer in danger of being injured, he just made a $200k win bonus and he reacts by…walking away expressionless like what just happened was some kind of formality.

        Or: guy hits game winning 3 pointer and he immediately, stoically just jogs into the locker room like nothing happened.

        The least cool celebrations are what would come naturally to you and me: smiling, hands in the air, jumping up and down, congratulating teammates. That’s what sports puritans would prefer to see, but clearly not because it’s most impressive to most audiences.