Isn’t it time the NFL eliminated celebration penalties?
People still think of Billy “White Shoes” Johnson as the man who invented the end zone dance, Ickey Woods and Clarence Verdin who expanded it into parody and Terrell Owens who took the genre to its ultimate extended-play destination.
But one man predated them all. And unlike the others, he didn’t really plan or choreograph any of it the first time. He just danced in spontaneous celebration.
Nothing was contrived about Elmo Wright’s first end zone dance in 1969. It just sort of happened. As a wideout for the Houston Cougars, he beat Florida’s All America defensive back, future New York Jet Steve Tannen on an out-and-up for a score.
Wright high-stepped the last couple of yards to avoid Tannen’s diving attempt at a shoe-string tackle.
And then he was so happy upon reaching the end zone that he just kept high-stepping in rapid cadence like the former marching band member he was, a trumpet player entering the stadium with 100 others.
Later, while a wideout for the Kansas City Chiefs, Wright did the same thing and added a spike of the ball at the end. No one in pro football had ever done anything like this before. Homer Jones of the New York Giants had invented spiking the ball years prior. But throwing the ball violently to the ground and dancing? No one even knew how to react.
Howard Cosell put it on the ABC Monday Night Football halftime highlights. There is no video I can find of it. Not on Youtube, not anywhere.
Elmo Wright (17) does his touchdown dance for the Kansas City Chiefs.
But you’ll have to trust me that Elmo Wright created the touchdown celebration. And once created, it had to evolve. To a ridiculous extreme? Depends on your viewpoint.
The funny part is, other sports have never had the equivalent of an end zone celebration. Baseball has its “code” where if a home run hitter even hints at flamboyance, he faces a 95-mph projectile aimed at some part of his body his next plate appearance. Hockey has a bunch of Canadian farm boys with no rhythm, all padded up. Anyway, if anybody danced after a goal, he’d have to drop his gloves his next shift. Basketball has way too many scores to get excited about any in particular. Even the most ourageous tomahawk dunk is only worth two points out of 80.
So, football is unique from a celebratory standpoint.
The NCAA began a trend of trying to legislate what it saw as amorality years before with its 1995 crack-down on celebrations complete with a video to instruct officials and players. Most of the various dances and celebrations in the video featured the recognized in-game scofflaws of the day, the Miami Hurricanes. It wasn’t just about taunting. It was, and still is, defined under Rule 9-2 in all sorts of officious stilted language. You can practically visualize Randal Hill at the Cotton Bowl:
* Any delayed, excessive, prolonged or choreographed act by which a player (or players) attempts to focus attention upon himself (or themselves).
* Inciting an opponent or spectators in any other way, such as simulating the firing of a weapon or placing a hand by the ear to request recognition.
I mean, who wrote this stuff? The only way to read these rules is in the Richard Pryor “white guy voice” from his stand-up routine 40 years ago.
But that gets to the point: Almost exclusively, black guys did the most flamboyant celebrations. And tight-assed white guys decided to legislate based on their own morality.
I can think of only one white NFL player who did any sort of elaborate dance upon making a big play and that was New York Jets defensive end Mark Gastineau and his goofy sack dance. Everyone else who did any sort of choreographed celebration was black.
And so, the National Football League got much of its reputation as the No Fun League because it eventually had their officials begin throwing flags for excessive end zone celebrations in 2006. Last season, it suddenly got a lot worse, flags being handed out like Kleenex especially in September.
This was asinine. It always has been. And, really, if we can be honest with ourselves, the genesis of penalizing celebration has always been tinged with a racial component.
Could this be any more trivial? The NFL takes this seriously but virtually ignores the use of addictive opioid pain-killers. It still flags celebrations as immoral but has routinely tolerated sexual assault among its players.
In March, NFL referees, presumably weary of deciding what sort of celebration is a penalty proposed that the rules be revised, possibly rolled back entirely and pushed into the territory of fines. Thank you. It remains to be seen if this proposal moves forward. The topic was tabled at the March meeting and will be revisited at the league’s spring meetings May 22-24 in Chicago.
Now, you can argue that, if penalties for celebration are rolled back, the post-TD acts will start to get so ridiculous as to taint the game somehow. That you don’t care what anyone thinks. That, like Joe Buck, you don’t want to see another Terrell Owens clone pretend to moon the Lambeau Field stands.
Know what? Worthy teams will police themselves.
The organizations that believe in a certain degree of professionalism and the winning teams with alpha dogs in charge of the locker room will take care of any lunatic fringe. Internal fines will be doled out where applicable.
And the outlier franchises who never win? They will tolerate chaos and anarchy in all respects and never win anything important.
The Patriots will remain the Patriots. The Bengals will remain the Bengals. The market always sorts itself out.
So, I say, throw all the absurd rules out the window. Only fascist societies outlaw dancing. That’s not counting John Lithgow trying to contain Kevin Bacon in Footloose.
And see, that didn’t work, either.
DAVID JONES: firstname.lastname@example.org