Remember the days of awesome touchdown celebrations? Like when Terrell Owens pulled a marker out of his sock, signed the ball and handed it to his financial advisor, who was sitting in the stands? Or when Joe Horn pulled out a cell phone and pretended to call someone? Or the time Chad Johnson—who had been fined before for excessive celebration—ran over to a snow bank and pulled out a bright orange sign that said “Dear NFL, PLEASE don’t fine me AGAIN!!!!” (He was fined $10,000.) The Atlanta Falcons did the Dirty Bird, the Kansas City Chiefs started the goal post dunk, the Bears did the shuffle, and the Packers did the Lambeau Leap into the crowd. It was all fun and games—and totally against the rules.
But recent studies suggest that calls penalizing excessive celebration might have something to do with race. The New York Times writes that these penalties might be slapped on players in a non-random way:
A Kansas City Chiefs cornerback returns an interception 58 yards for a touchdown, then flexes his biceps in the end zone with one foot resting on the ball. A Seattle wide receiver makes a throat-slashing gesture after catching a 52-yard pass for a score. A running back for Green Bay lies on his back in the end zone and waves his legs and arms to mime a snow angel after an 80-yard scoring catch. After an 18-yard touchdown catch on Jan. 1, a Buffalo receiver exposes an undershirt that has “Happy New Year” written on it.
Each of these touchdown celebrations last season resulted in a 15-yard penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct. But they had one other commonality: The fouls were called on black players.
Now, here’s what’s illegal about these actions. The NLF has a rule against “excessive celebration.” It falls under the “Taunting” section and goes like this:
- (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.
- (f) Possession or use of foreign or extraneous object(s) that are not part of the uniform during the game on the field or the sideline, or using the ball as a prop.
Some of the best celebrations don’t fall into this category. The Lambau Leap, in which a player catapults himself into the end zone crowd after scoring, is apparently fine. As is the goal post dunk. The marker and the cell phone, however, don’t make the cut
The rule has been criticized before, for being no-fun, but also for being misused. Last year, Eric Decker of the Denver Broncos was fined for going down on one knee and saluting towards the stands. The catch is that it was Veterans Day, and Decker was saluting towards the troops that had come to watch the game. Bleacher Report writes:
The NFL will claim that he broke a rule, that the fine is for going down on one knee, not for the salute itself. They will claim that he knew the rule, which requires him to stay on his feet, and chose to break it, so the fine has to stand. They will claim that if they allow an exception for Decker, then each and every player slapped with an excessive celebration fine can claim that they were doing so to support some section of the community or other.
But the recent New York Times story suggests that its misuse goes beyond confusion or nit-picking and ventures into racism. They point to a study from July, in which researchers asked non-black men and women to read accounts of football plays. Here’s how the two accounts differ, according to the times:
In one version, a wide receiver named Malik Johnson makes a spectacular fingertip catch and sprints into the end zone. Then he spikes the ball in front of a defender named Jake Biermann, goes into his signature touchdown dance, flexes his muscles and waits for a reaction from the crowd. In a second version, everything is the same, except the wide receiver is Jake Biermann and the defender is Malik Johnson.
In other variations, the stories and names are the same but when the wide receiver — either Jake or Malik — scores he calmly flips the ball to the referee and trots to the sideline.
When study participants were asked to rate Malik and Jake on arrogance or humility, depending on their post-touchdown routine, the subjects rated them the same. But when they had to reward or penalize the players, the differences showed up. Malik was given a “hubris penalty” if he celebrated too much, while Jake was not. The study authors told the Times:
“The same pattern of blacks being punished more than whites seems to hold true both in the N.F.L. and in this experiment,” Livingston said. “I would conclude that the results are generalizable to N.F.L. referees.”
Now, there’s not really enough data about excessive celebration in the NFL to be able to support this claim. And it’s important to note that race and position on the field and not unrelated. Most quarterbacks—81 percent—are white. More than 90 percent of wide receivers, defensive backs and running backs—all positions that might make that stunning catch or killer run into the end zone—are black. In other words, the people who are celebrating touchdowns and thus in the position to celebrate excessively, are almost always black. And the subjects in this study weren’t professional referees, whose job is to be, well, professional.
Regardless of the rules or the refs’ thinking, spectators are free to enjoy players’ celebrations. Here are some of the best of all time—many now illegal.
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