"Celebration" crackdown hurts college football

The NCAA's ham-fisted enforcement is a threat to the best thing about the game: the intense, celebratory atmosphere.

Published September 10, 2008 11:00AM (EDT)

The best thing college football has going for it is its atmosphere. Done right, a college football game is a daylong, even a weekend-long party on campus, and the scene at some stadiums is like nothing else in North American sports.

College football is intense and emotional. Every game is fraught with meaning. Bowl berths and championship possibilities are on the line every minute of every game until they're not. Entire athletic careers consist of no more than 50 or so games. That's also the typical length of residency in the stand-up party known as the student section.

The games and the athletes who play them and the bands that serenade them and the fans who scream and cheer at them are part of a tradition that in most cases began long before anyone in the stadium was born. A football Saturday -- or, now, a football Tuesday or Wednesday or anything but Sunday -- connects the elderly grad to the little kid he used to be, the student-section rooter to the middle-aged alum she'll one day become.

On top of all that, college football is a game played by 20-year-olds, give or take a couple of years. Twenty-year-olds are emotional. They tend to be exuberant when they're happy.

Which brings us to Jake Locker, the Washington Huskies quarterback who's been the talk of college football since Saturday, when he led his team on a 17-play, 76-yard drive and scored what looked like it would be the tying touchdown against the BYU Cougars with two seconds left. Locker's three-yard TD made the score 28-27 BYU pending the extra point. Upon reaching the end zone he flipped the ball high into the air and celebrated with his teammates.

As you know if you've been in the United States and near electricity, officials flagged Locker for a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. If you'll turn to page 3,869,433,083 of your NCAA rule book (Vol. MCLVI, Uns through Unt), you'll see that throwing the ball high in the air in celebration is specifically prohibited. Enforcement of sportsmanship penalties has been a point of emphasis this season.

Backed up 15 yards, Washington's extra point became a 35-yard kick, which BYU blocked to seal the game.

Now, BYU might have blocked the 20-yard extra point too, but the sequence of events will be remembered as the celebration penalty costing Washington a shot at overtime. Actually, it'll be remembered as the penalty costing Washington the game, but never mind. People remember all sorts of things a little wrong and life goes on.

Much debate has been debated since Saturday over whether the officials should have called that penalty, and, among those of us who fancy ourselves deeper thinkers, whether the rule itself should exist in the first place.

There's a wide line of thought that while the rule is OK, the officials should have kept their flags tucked in because the game was on the line. Washington coach Ty Willingham sort of said as much in the postgame press conference, double-speaking, "It really should be a no-call, but it's one that they've got to call when they see that."

I understand that view, but I'm a believer that if something's a penalty in the first quarter it ought to be a penalty in the final seconds of the fourth. This is one of the reasons I'm not an NBA referee, though not the main one.

The other widespread opinion is that the rule is bad, players should be allowed to celebrate to at least some extent because football is an emotional game and so on, and games should be decided by players playing football, not by officials enforcing behavior codes.

It's also possible to think the rule is good and the call was good, but nobody thinks that except maybe some NCAA officials, and they're bozos.

The NCAA cracks down on sportsmanship-type penalties from time to time because the big money comes mostly from conservative corporations and donors whose cultural prejudice is that the way to be an athlete is to act like Joe DiMaggio.

They and the NCAA's bureaucrats, who together rule the sport, occasionally get unhappy with the way the young kids are carrying on with their hip and their hop and their spiking of footballs and jumping all over each other like a bunch of happy kids, and the NCAA throws down a mandate like it did this summer.

It's a mistake. We're not talking about taunting here, the kind of thing that can lead to fights. Locker's celebration -- he flipped the ball into the air and leaped into the arms of his jubilant teammates -- was absolutely of a piece with the atmosphere at a college football game. Spiking the ball, a no-no even before the crackdown, also would have been.

And that atmosphere is the best thing college football has.

As football, of course, it doesn't compare to the NFL, for which it's the minor leagues. But that ambience is gold. The NCAA's typically shortsighted and ham-fisted effort to control the perfectly reasonable behavior of its athletes threatens to tarnish it. Did anybody, even BYU folks, walk away from that game Saturday feeling good about college football?

The NCAA will back off the current crackdown. It has to because the people are speaking. They're saying that celebrating is not bad. Celebrating is good. It's fun. It's healthy. You know that. I know it. Washington fans know it. BYU fans know it. Your cat knows it.

The NCAA has to learn it. Anything else you need to know about the NCAA?

By King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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