The players get set with 5:21 left in the game. Alabama is down 28 to 17, and driving. They have the ball on their own 37-yard-line. It is second down, four yards to go. Quarterback John Parker Wilson stands poised in the shotgun formation. Three receivers are stacked on his right, one on his left. All hope for a Crimson Tide victory rests on a score in this drive.
The ball is hiked. Wilson drops back to the 28-yard-line and looks right. He sees an open man. On his arm rests the hopes of entire season. But the problem lies not in what Wilson sees, but in what he does not see.
Utah defensive back Sean Smith is charging from Wilson’s blind side. As Wilson steps into his throw he exposes himself and Smith pounces. The Alabama QB collapses. Fumble.
As if destiny had willed it, the ball bounced a few yards into the welcoming arms of Utah linebacker Stevenson Sylvester. He recovered the ball and in doing so ended Alabama’s season. As the crowd roared, Sylvester picked up the ball and celebrated, running in a crouch with his palms facing the ground and pumping his arms as if he were double-dribbling. The act lasted less than three seconds, but a flag was thrown. Sylvester was charged with a personal foul for unsportsmanlike conduct.
I couldn’t believe it. The lowly Utes of the University of Utah had defeated the seemingly unstoppable Crimson Tide from Alabama—and there was a flag on the field. I couldn’t get over the absurd penalty call, and it got me thinking that the NCAA needs to abandon their draconian rules regarding ‘excessive’ celebration.
The Utes got no respect for an entire season because they weren’t from a big-name conference. All the while, these players were up at the crack of dawn and in bed by a curfew on top of their schoolwork, striving to improve. The suspense of a big bowl-game upset was resolved with this climactic recovery. After the fumble, Sylvester was on top of the world. Wouldn’t you celebrate? (I, for one, am glad there are no referees present when students are informed they get into Harvard because there might not be enough flags for all the personal foul penalties.)
The ecstatic linebacker did not talk trash, did not taunt anyone, and did not hit anyone. He just reacted to the realization of his, and the entire team’s, football dreams. There is much to be said for preserving a spirit of respect in college sports, win or lose, but the NCAA shouldn’t include Sylvester’s celebration under the mantle of disrespectful behavior. This was not unsportsmanlike conduct, but unbridled joy. And a young athlete’s joy, and sense of achievement, should never earn him or her a penalty.
Student-athletes are not paid; they are not vying for a contract extension or to increase their market price as a free agent. Many, as the NCAA likes to say, will turn pro “in something other than sports.” When a human being puts him or herself through the crucible that a sport can be, subjects him or herself to the mental and physical discipline and sacrifice, and puts his or her body on the line without a paycheck in sight, something deeper is at work. When I was growing up, we called this “the love of the game.”
And increasingly, this love is the last pure thing the NCAA can protect. Despite their many policies and restrictions, money has saturated college sports. With prestigious programs paying millions for coaches and millions more for stadiums and television deals, it has never been more important to encourage playing sports for sports’ sake.
Of course, the penalty didn’t mean much, and if Mr. Sylvester lost any sleep that night, it wasn’t because he was kicking himself. But as student-athletes secure larger, longer contracts out of school and as scouts even turn their attention to high school prospects, the last thing we need is less authentic, respectful celebration. Instead of discouraging manifestations of joy and excitement on the field, the NCAA should applaud them as true elements of sport that remain in an association that becomes more commercial with each passing season.
George Hayward ’11, a Crimson editorial writer, is a government concentrator in Currier House.