It’s Not About You: Throwing the Red Flag on Unsportsmanlike Conduct

Campus Cabana swim team members celebrate a narrow home-meet victory against a rival pool. photo: Steve Killian, Towson, MD, July 2011

A string of penalties and punishments associated with unsportsmanlike behavior, both locally and nationally, has crossed our news feeds recently, sparking spirited debates in backyards, school parking lots, and online forums. The point of discussion: Are school systems and professional sports organizations going too far in penalizing individuals and teams for showing emotional expressions of pride and elation?

Let’s get one thing straight right away. It’s not about you, Opponent. The fist pumps, the Bernie dances, the high fives — They have absolutely nothing to do with any of you. The winning team (have we forgotten that there will be a winner and a loser in such games?) is excited because they succeeded in a tackle, a score, a win. It’s not about you. It’s all about them.

This is yet another case of the establishment of a rule losing its original focus and purpose and falling into the hazy, gray area of interpretation, largely swayed by emotional parents and community members of opposing teams at the local level, and by over-controlling, power-hungry officials at the professional level.

A Little History Lesson on Unsportsmanlike Conduct in the NFL

  • 1984: A rule was established in the NFL to curb individual or group celebrations that were “prolonged, excessive, or premeditated.” This was often referred to as the “Mark Gastineau Rule,” as it was believed by many that the rule was created to stop him from performing his signature “Sack Dance” every time after he sacked an opposing quarterback.
  • 2004: NFL owners agree to institute an excessive celebration penalty in an attempt to eliminate premeditated celebrations. The excessive celebration infraction, considered unsportsmanlike conduct, carries a 15-yard penalty. Such choreographed performances like Terrell Owens pulling a Sharpie marker out of his sock or Joe Horn uncovering a planted cell phone are the target of the new rule. Any infraction ruled flagrant will constitute immediate ejection from the contest.
  • 2006: Individual players are prohibited from using foreign objects or the football while celebrating. They are also 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. Previously, players were not prohibited from using props or celebrating on the ground. Reason for the change: Promotes sportsmanship. [New NFL Rules for 2006]
  • According to the NFL Digest of Rules, rule no. 32 defines unsportsmanlike conduct as any act contrary to the generally understood principles of sportsmanship.
See, this is where it gets very sticky. When we start using phrases like, “Generally understood principles of sportsmanship,” we open ourselves up for referees and officials bringing their prejudices and opinions on the field and usurping their power in dangerous ways. How do we define “excessive” in such a way that referees and officials don’t ruin the spirit of the game and kill the passion of the athletes by deeming any emotional reaction as unsportsmanlike?
In 2007, Sedrick Ellis (now a Defensive Tackle of the New Orleans Saints), was slapped with an unsportsmanlike call and a 15-yard penalty for flexing his muscles after a sack:

Just last week, Ray Rice of the Baltimore Ravens was tagged with the same penalty for flexing his muscles after a spectacular run against the Arizona Cardinals. Apparently, the refs believe such acts are excessive taunts that are antithetical to the “generally understood principles of sportsmanship.”

So let me get this right: In the game of football, it is sportsmanlike to talk smack on the front line, grind my opponent into the turf with full force, push and shove after an intense tackle, and go helmet-to-helmet spewing insults and threats, but it is unsportsmanlike to flex my muscles after I did something I’m proud of?

At the local level, it is even worse. Earlier this week, the Perry Hall High School boys soccer team (Baltimore, MD) celebrated at the end of the game after scoring a winning goal. Parents of the opposing team (Dulaney High School) complained that the celebration was both “lewd” and “inappropriate.” The principal agreed with the parents of the opposing school and suspended the team from playing in any more games for the season — including playoff and championship matches. (Read/view the complete report HERE from the Perry Hall site.) He announced yesterday at a press conference that he decided to reverse his decision about forfeiting the rest of the season (the team plays the semifinal championship game today against Blake at 2 p.m.), but he stands behind his original statement regarding disciplinary action against the team for “inappropriate behavior.”

Now, the Baltimore County Public Schools website provides the following statement from the Office of Athletics regarding sportsmanlike behavior:

The Baltimore County Public School Interscholastic Athletic Program is committed to promoting the proper ideals of sportsmanship, ethical conduct and fair play at all athletic contests. We oppose instances and activities which run counter to the best values of athletic competition in order to insure the well-being of all individual student-athletes. We support high standards of good citizenship and propriety, along with regard for the rights of others.

I agree with this statement. I hardly think anyone can find fault with such a general statement that promotes sportsmanship and strong athletic competition. Nowhere in this statement does it suggest or infer that players cannot be excited about the successes they experience on the field.

As a father of a child who has played team sports, however, I have seen winning teams making it personal, thrusting their arrogance into the faces of their 9-year-old opponents and focusing on the losing team’s weaknesses and challenges. Any act that is directed toward an opponent in a derogatory manner or that is focused on the failures of an individual player or team is, in all ways, unsportsmanlike and should be called as such.

But we’re not talking about such acts here. This is about end-of-game joy, personal-best celebrations, and emotional shouts of YES! for a job well done — none of which have anything to do with the opponent. Not a single one.

In our everyday lives, we celebrate personal accomplishments all the time, don’t we? A promotion, a personal best for a 5K, even answering the right question in a trivia game. We recognize and encourage demonstrations of pride and elation as strong contributors to personal wellness, self-confidence, self-esteem, and overall happiness.

Our cheerleaders promote and encourage emotional outbursts from our fans. Million-dollar scoreboards and video displays in our larger stadiums rally us to chant, cheer, and get involved. Even in other sports, like golf and baseball, fist pumps are expected, anticipated, and enjoyed by their fans. Yet, the very players for other sports who are on the field making the plays are restricted from doing anything that even resembles a fraction of such elation. It just doesn’t make any sense.

We are sending the wrong message to our sports teams, both professional and at the local level. Instead of discouraging and penalizing pride and celebration, we should be telling the refs and the parents on the losing side of the field to realize that this is part of the game. This is what you sign up for when your child plays a sport where there are winners and losers.

It’s not about you, folks. Leave the winners alone and let them celebrate their successes. Your time will come soon enough, and when it does, I hope you celebrate with the same pride and elation.


4 thoughts on “It’s Not About You: Throwing the Red Flag on Unsportsmanlike Conduct

  1. I’ve often lamented the place that youth “sports” has gotten to, where “everyone is a winner” and games are played without scores being kept, etc. I think that sort of thing teaches the wrong kind of message. I do believe it is possible to teach our kids how to be kind and respectful of one another while still embracing the spirit of competition. I think we teach unreal lessons when kids are coddled and brought up in a competitive environment while being taught that they shouldn’t be competitive. That just doesn’t make sense.

    And that translates to what you are talking about. I don’t think celebrations should go on so long that they interrupt the flow of the game, but people should be allowed to be excited about succeeding. I think pro sports should penalize the taunting, but dancing around and yelling and being excited isn’t taunting. Getting up in the opposing players’ face is taunting, tossing the ball at them is taunting. But so many things that are penalized are just ridiculous. And the NFL is very hypocritical in that they do allow all kinds of verbal taunting, etc. to go on during a game, but God forbid you actually show any exuberance for a job well done.


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