The NFL has a long list of problems that need to be addressed sooner rather than later. Revising policies related to off-the-field conduct of employees, cutting down on the excessive flag-tossing bogging down games, and a prevention program for the league’s rampant concussion problem should be at the top of the list. These are issues pertaining to the long-term sustainability and core character of the league. Evidently, those type of discussions have been tabled for another day, in order to stomp out an “evil” that plagues football at every possible turn — touchdown celebrations.
No “new” rules have come into play for the 2014 season regarding touchdown celebrations, but the NFL has decided to crack down on the popular goalpost dunk. The NFL will now ban the dunk within the rule that prohibits the use of a ball as a prop This comes in the wake of one particular touchdown scored last fall by Saints tight end Jimmy Graham. It ended in a post-bending catastrophe that provided an excuse to halt yet another celebration:
This is just the latest step taken by Roger Goddell and Co. to curtail exuberance between the hashmarks. A flurry of excess led by trash-talking luminaries such as Terrell Owens, Joe Horn and Chad Ochocinco in the early 2000’s led to a crackdown of all celebrations, touchdown or otherwise. It’s a practice that fits in with the NFL’s all-for-one, one-for-all ethos, reflecting the parity they wish to create across the league.
Parity in competition is a fine thing, one that gives teams across the country equal chance at building toward success. Being on an even keel is what keeps fans coming back in droves each season, the feeling of “this is our year” never seeming too far-fetched — unless you’re a Browns fan.
But what, exactly, are the benefits gained from parity in personality?
Football is largely devoid of expression; regardless of individual talent, each man is a part of a larger scheme and system whose parts function because of one another. If one cog goes awry, the machine is likely to crumble. Individual exploits are had, names and numbers burned into our brains as feats of skill begin to pile up, but each man remains a faceless warrior on the gridiron, identity hidden by the facemask.
By default, football fans are provoked to celebrate only the most accomplished the NFL has to offer, the men who rack up hardware and play deep into January each year. A purist might say that’s the right way to do things, that everything else is just noise. But it’s the noise that makes sports worth our time in the first place. It provides color and contrast and intrigue to what is otherwise a bunch of grown men playing a simple game.
The quiet, soft-spoken man who goes about his business is not emblematic of the NFL’s viewership in total. There’s plenty to be admired in a man like Barry Sanders, who celebrated touchdowns the only way he knew how, flipping the pigskin to the ref and retreating to the sideline. That doesn’t diminish the accomplishments of a man like Owens, currently fifth in the history of the league in touchdowns scored and member of a number of successful teams.
Other sports have begun to capitalize virally on the expression of their players. The NBA is a digital behemoth because of super-sized talents like LeBron James, but also due to the exploits of clown princes like Nick Young and Javale McGee. Soccer is a worldwide phenomenon that succeeds with contrast between quiet, mousy Lionel Messi and the bronzed, scowling persona of Cristiano Ronaldo. Opposites are celebrated rather than stigmatized, giving fans multiple paths to fandom and providing incentive to watch other than, “This team is good!” or “I live near this city!”
Because of the spectacular off-field problems created by the force of Owens’ personality, NFL officials sought to stamp out players like him and create a totalitarian relationship with its athletes. Drawing a surface link between players who concoct marvelous celebrations in advance and those who would allow their personal grievances to get in the way of team goals is easy, understandable even. It’s also a cop out, a lazy reaction to select individuals that can’t handle the duties of being a teammate.
This thesis assumes the average NFL player is a child that must be disciplined for expressing himself differently from his peers, fines akin to taking away a child’s favorite toy because he refused to color inside the lines. The NFL appears to be saying that its employees are unfit to decide when they can and cannot take pride in their accomplishments, even though they pay them millions of dollars to make split-second decisions weekly.
By attempting to weed out any player who dares challenge the status quo of blandness, NFL decision makers are admitting their inability to deal with even the smallest difference in personality. It speaks to their incompetence in showing empathy, reflected by their stance on domestic violence and their treatment of retired players left crippled in the name of blood sport.
Consider this a call to action for a league that consistently asks players to “man up” — treat your employees like adults and allow them to emote how they see fit. You have fish to fry that are bigger than Sharpies and slam dunks.