New taunting rule marred by subjectivity

On Thursday, the NCAA’s Playing Rules Oversight Panel approved three changes to the college game — one of which won’t take effect until 2011 but is unquestionably the most controversial.

The two alterations that will be employed starting next fall are the banning of eye black with messages — a former staple of Tim Tebow’s Saturday wardrobe — and wedge blocks, which were banned by the NFL prior to last season because of safety concerns. A 15-yard penalty will be assessed when the team receiving a kickoff has more than two players standing within two yards of one another, shoulder to shoulder — even if no contact is made with the opposing team. Studies conducted by the NCAA have shown that 20 percent of all injuries occurring on kickoffs result in concussions — an issue that has been highly debated over the past year.

The new rule banning messages on eye black has created a little rumble mostly because of its link to former Florida quarterback Tebow, who often used it for religious messages. Former USC tailback Reggie Bush put the practice on the map when he had his area code printed on his eye black, and a greater number of players began to do the same thing recently, in addition to shouting out family and friends so their messages could get picked up on television cameras.

While it seems silly to me to ban the eye black messages, I understand the idea of not taking away from the idea of “team.” But these are college kids, and it’s a game. Good thing Tebow is out of college eligibility, or else what would No. 15 do? Perfect timing, right?

The one rule change that’s generating the most heat on the college landscape is the new celebration rule for the 2011 season. It states that if a player is penalized for taunting while en route to a touchdown, the play will be nullified. That penalty is currently a dead-ball foul with it being assessed on the ensuing kickoff.

The rule change, however, turns it into a live-ball foul, which means the touchdown will be called back and the penalty will be assessed from the spot of the foul. The following actions would be considered penalties and live-ball fouls:

• If a player holds the ball out in a taunting manner as he's crossing the goal line
• If a player performs some sort of somersault into the end zone
• If a player high-steps into the end zone

The main problem I have with the new rule is that it leads to unquestionable subjectivity during games every Saturday, week after week. And with subjectivity, of course, comes inconsistency.

We already see coaches throwing up their arms after holding penalties negate touchdowns. And as football fans, we’re skilled at reading their lips when they’re on the wrong side of a bad call. It’s not pretty.

So what happens if Alabama and South Carolina are playing in the SEC championship game (you never know, this could be the year for Steve Spurrier and his Gamecocks), and quarterback Greg McElroy hooks up with wideout Julio Jones for a late touchdown to give Alabama the lead back with a minute to play? But on the sprint to the end zone — and after he breaks free from the secondary — Jones gets caught in the moment and creatively leaps into the end zone. If he’s flagged, no touchdown for the Crimson Tide.

I cringe when I think of head coach Nick Saban’s reaction to that call.

Or what if he just happens to gesture to the Alabama fans in the crowd out of pure glee, sans the leap into the end zone?

Sportsmanship should be prioritized at any level of sport, but at what point are college athletes being handcuffed from displaying pure emotion?

It should be noted that excessive celebration penalties following a score, such as mosh pits in the end zone with teammates, are still dead-ball fouls and won’t be subject to the new rules. Instead, they will continue to be assessed on conversion attempts or the ensuing kickoff.

But what about a simple end-zone dive once a player has already crossed the goal line? Since the move ended in the end zone, is it ruled so and just marked as a dead-ball foul?

Since the new rule was announced, many experts have brought up the controversial penalty against Georgia receiver A.J. Green after catching the go-ahead touchdown late in a game against LSU. The 15-year personal foul penalty was assessed on the kickoff and helped position the Tigers to drive for the winning score. Conference officials later said that the flag should not have been thrown.

I also recall the penalty assessed against Washington quarterback Jake Locker in 2008, when he was flagged for tossing the ball over his head following a touchdown against BYU.

While both of these penalties would not be called any differently under these new rules, they speak to the subjectivity of celebration penalties — in that both of these plays should not have been labeled penalties.

While this new rule is still a year away from affecting the play on the field, the discussion — because of the potential major impact of the rule change — will not go away any time soon.

Follow me on Twitter at Miller_Dave

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