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Everything went nuts at the end of Sunday's game between the Knicks and Heat.
With New York up one, Latrell Sprewell corralled a missed shot, landed near the baseline and, surrounded by Heat players, lost his balance. A whistle blew just before he fell out of bounds, and chaos ensued. As the Heat and the officials conferenced to determine exactly what had transpired, Sprewell triumphantly heaved the ball into the air and marched toward center court.
Watching the turmoil at home, I couldn't bring myself to try to figure out whether Sprewell had been fouled or called a timeout, or to crack a smile knowing that whatever call had been made undoubtedly benefited my Knicks.
Instead, as Latrell flung the ball toward the heavens, I could only think, "Don't 'T' him up!"
Sprewell could have been assessed a technical foul for celebrating prematurely by tossing the ball. What an awful way that would have been to end a spectacular series--a technical free throw. I'm glad that the officials were able to exercise some discretion--although the way things were going, it's not like Miami would have hit the free throw anyway.
But once the dust settled and the Knicks sent the soon-to-be-dismantled Heat packing for a third straight year, I began to reflect on celebration in professional sports in general, and wonder why both the public and most sports authorities are so against it.
The NFL, or as it has recently been dubbed, the "No-Fun League," has led the charge against player celebrations. Most recently in its annual meetings, the NFL banned multiplayer touchdown dances. Next season, if the St. Louis Rams want to perform their famed "Bob and Weave" after a score, each participant will be subject to several thousand dollars in fines.
Interestingly, individual end zone celebrations will still be allowed.
"Two or more players performing an act they created is not in line with the game," said Minnesota coach Dennis Green. "Hard feelings can kick into place and can cause retaliation or fisticuffs on the field."
As much as I love his use of the word "fisticuffs," Green's logic eludes me. If Deion Sanders just blew by you to score a touchdown and danced on his own, would you really be less likely to go after him than if he were surrounded by other elated Cowboys?
The NFL has come up with the darnedest reasons for cracking down on the fun. The league banned the throat-slashing gesture used by Brett Favre because it found the gesture "threatening."
Come on! If you're the opposing team, do you really worry that Brett Favre is going to come after you postgame with a knife? Of course not! When's the last time an NFL player... hmmm. Never mind.
The greater issue here is not one of preventing on-field conflicts or determining the relative harm of individual and group celebrations, but of attempting to legislate sportsmanship. Initially, expecting players not to be joyous seems unreasonable. If you were 25 and being paid millions of dollars to play a boy's game, wouldn't you be inclined to whoop it up in the end zone every so often?
Darned if I wouldn't.
Similarly, if a guard getting paid $4 million a year gets his dunk swatted by Dikembe Mutombo every time, I doubt he'll cry about Mutombo's taunting finger-wag later that night. If he does cry, he can wipe his tears with hundred dollar bills.
Besides, contrary to what Green thinks, celebrations do have their place in the game. End zone rituals distinctive to a specific team, like Atlanta's "Dirty Bird" dance of two seasons ago, help to build team character and camaraderie. They represent an admittedly peculiar--but still compelling--form of male bonding. I'm sure an anthro major could back me up here.
Recent history has shown the positive effects of the team celebration. Pre-"Bob and Weave," the Rams endured a decade of mediocrity--and worse. Post-"Bob"? The Superbowl.
What's more, celebrations help a team maintain a generally loose demeanor, and teams don't play well when they are stressed out. How many times have you heard a coach or player tell the media, "We've gotta play loose tonight?" It's a clich, but a valid one. And what better way to stay loose than to clown around a bit after a touchdown?
It seems stranger for sports to attempt to legislate sportsmanship when some already-accepted rituals are anything but sportsmanlike. Baseball's retaliatory beanball will prompt a warning and, if done repeatedly, an ejection, but it is still an established--nay, often expected--part of the game. And hockey...let's not even talk about hockey.
But the most important reason why sports governing bodies shouldn't try to make all of its players gentlemen is so we can appreciate the real class acts when we see them. Barry Sanders made it to the end zone over a hundred times in his career, and actually acted as if he had actually done it before each time.
If we didn't allow Deion to groove after each interception, how could we truly appreciate the calm, silent class of true role models like the other Sanders?
Classiness can't be coerced. If we don't like a player's celebratory gyrations, we should resort to the fan's traditional outlets. We should refrain from buying his jersey. We should whine. We should boo. Who knows? Maybe the players will listen.
But if Deion shows up at your summer job and starts critiquing your work, don't blame me.
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