Hey, Commish: Kick back and smell roses

September 25, 1991|By Bob Rubin | Bob Rubin,Knight-Ridder

Commissioner Paul Tagliabue promised a "kinder, gentler approach" when he announced an easing of the rules against player celebrations last week, but there's still a way to go before the NFL sheds its No Fun League tag.

Or National Fogey League. Don't these guys realize football is entertainment? Don't they understand it must be played with emotion? Taunting (of the sort the University of Miami has been guilty in the past) lacks class and is dangerous because it provokes anger and a desire to retaliate, but if a guy wants to wiggle his behind in the end zone, or throw a ball into the stands, let him. Fans enjoy it. Lighten up, National Fossil League.

The problem is the league continues to try to precisely define acceptable and unacceptable displays of emotion, then make and enforce rules governing them. It can't be done. Emotions defy precise definition and codification. The best the NFL can do is say it allows "spontaneous expressions of exuberance," while penalizing "prolonged, excessive and premediated" celebrations.

But what exactly do these terms mean? How long is prolonged? What is excessive? How do you know when an action is spontaneous or premeditated? In some cases, the answer is obvious, but in others it isn't. When it isn't, the officials are put in a difficult position.

Miami coach Don Shula, a member of the Competition Committee that made the rules dealing with demonstrations, acknowledges the officials' dilemma and advocates giving them latitude in their calls.

"I've always felt a good common-sense approach instead of strict interpretation of the rules was the right way to go," Shula said. "Was anything or anyone harmed?"

The issue became topical in the wake of several unarguably goofy calls. Denver's John Elway gently flipped a ball underhand to a fan in a wheelchair, who called it "the greatest thing that ever happened to me." But it wasn't great for Elway, who was hit with a 5-yard penalty and $1,000 fine. Washington's Wilber Marshall handed a ball to a little girl and got zapped the same way. Detroit's Rodney Peete exchanged high-fives with fans, and it cost the Lions five on the ensuing kickoff.

In response to a fan backlash, the league did away with penalties for high-fiving fans and for throwing a ball into the stands, but maintained a $1,000 fine for giving the fans a souvenir, based on the contention that it can create a crowd-control problem or result in someone getting hurt in a scramble for the ball.

Huh? Baseball fans chase balls madly and have a ball doing it. Lighten up, National Fossil League.

The Dolphins were penalized 5 yards in the wake of the celebration over nose guard Chuck Klingbeil's crucial fumble recovery for a touchdown against the Packers on Sunday. Klingbeil did a wonderfully gawky dance, but didn't spike because he was afraid he'd get a flag. So linebacker Bryan Cox took the ball from Klingbeil, spiked it for him and drew the flag.

Spiking is OK for the man who just scored, but if a teammate spikes, it draws an automatic flag. Five yards doesn't seem like a big deal, but on a kickoff it can significantly affect field position.

Here was Klingbeil, an obscure free-agent scrub, making the biggest play of his football life but afraid to celebrate for fear of being penalized. His fear wasn't justified, but it shows the inhibiting mind-set the league has instilled.

And here was Cox, a rookie acting impulsively out of sheer joy and excitement. Penalizing him for spiking was simply ridiculous.

"What Cox did was spontaneous," Shula said. "It wasn't premediated, prolonged or excessive. Why try to put tight guidelines on it? They should have used good common sense and let it go."

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