Dear NFL: Let the players have fun in the end zone

Deion Sanders was there as part of his NFL Network duties. And the Sept. 18 game took place in Atlanta, where “Primetime” began his career. So after returning a punt 62 yards to break Sanders’ all-time return record, Devin Hester mimicked the Hall of Famer by high-stepping the last 10 yards into the end zone. But showing no sense for the moment or that the current Falcons returner was paying homage to the former Falcons great, officials gave Hester a 15-yard penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct. “It is unfortunate that the NFL won’t allow for that kind of celebration,” said Patrick Mannelly, Hester’s special teams teammate from 2006 to 2013. “I mean it’s an NFL record.” With its stringent rules regarding touchdown celebrations, the NFL is once again living down to its notorious nickname — the “No Fun League.” “We’re out there having fun,” said Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. “If you get in the end zone, you deserve to celebrate. It’s what we work for. So, once we get in there, I love to see guys just have fun, enjoy themselves, be a kid again.” Though the NFL likely won’t relax its rules to allow for more frivolity, the competition committee would have to submit such proposals to NFL executives at the league's annual meeting in Phoenix late March. The Unsportsmanlike Conduct Rule Currently, in Rule 12, Section 3 of the by-laws, the NFL lumps in such seemingly innocuous celebrations with other prohibited acts, including punching an opponent or making unnecessary physical contact with a referee, which results in a 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty.   Section 3 Unsportsmanlike Conduct Article 1: Prohibited Acts. There shall be no unsportsmanlike conduct. This applies to any act which is contrary to the generally understood principles of sportsmanship. Such acts specifically include, among others: (a)  Throwing a punch, or a forearm, or kicking at an opponent, even though no contact is made. (b)  Using abusive, threatening, or insulting language or gestures to opponents, teammates, officials, or representatives of the League. (c)  Using baiting or taunting acts or words that engender ill will between teams. (d)  Prolonged or excessive celebrations or demonstrations by an individual player. Players are prohibited from engaging in any celebrations or demonstrations while on the ground. A celebration or demonstration shall be deemed excessive or prolonged if a player continues to celebrate or demonstrate after a warning from an official. (e)  Two or more players engaging in prolonged, excessive, premeditated, or choreographed celebrations or demonstrations. (f)  Possession or use of foreign or extraneous object(s) that are not part of the uniform during the game on the field or the sideline, or using the ball as a prop. (g)  Unnecessary physical contact with a game official. (h)  Removal of his helmet by a player in the field of play or the end zone during a celebration or demonstration, or during a confrontation with a game official or any other player. Note 3: Violations of (b) will be penalized if any of the acts are committed directly at an opponent. These acts include, but are not limited to: sack dances; home run swing; incredible hulk; spiking the ball; spinning the ball; throwing or shoving the ball; pointing; pointing the ball; verbal taunting; military salute; standing over an opponent (prolonged and with provocation); or dancing.   Who do football players hurt with these excessive celebrations that result in unsportsmanlike penalties? Moreover, the semantics of the rule can make it difficult to interpret and legislate. Hester’s touchdown was excessive, but the Lambeau Leap is not? The Husain Abdullah Penalty Perhaps the most glaring screw-up in penalizing for excessive celebration occurred during the late September Monday Night Football contest between the Chiefs and Patriots. After a Pick-6 against New England quarterback Tom Brady, Chiefs safety Husain Abdullah kneeled in the end zone in Islamic prayer and received a 15-yard penalty because he was “on the ground,” an activity outlawed in part D of Section 3, Article 1. “That was just an errant call in my mind. Heck, a guy going to his knees and praying?” Abdullah’s teammate, Travis Kelce told NFP. “You can’t really say anything bad about that. It shouldn’t have been a flag.” Kelce was right. The NFL admitted it messed up the call because, though Abdullah was going to the ground, it was part of a religious expression — no different than Tebowing. Kelce, the dynamic Chiefs tight end entering his third year, is known for his touchdown celebrations, including The Nae Nae, The Shmoney Dance, The Bow and Arrow and even one that honors WWE wrestler Ric Flair. “I do have some fun when I do get in the end zone,” Kelce said. “That’s for sure.” One of the NFL’s most prolific celebrators is no fan of the restrictions. “I really don’t agree with half of them,” Kelce said. “You got to abide by ’em … whether you like them or you don’t.” Prior to Kelce, several players engaged in memorable celebrations that would be penalized today. Chad Johnson performed CPR on a football and used an end zone pylon as a putter. Steve Smith pantomimed rowing a boat. “When I was younger, I was big fan of Ochocinco and T.O. and Steve Smith and all the guys,” said Buccaneers wide receiver Mike Evans. Evans, who scored 12 touchdowns during his rookie year, wishes he could celebrate in a way that reflects on his impressive prep basketball career, which led to numerous scholarship offers from Division-I schools. “I wanna be able to dunk the ball,” Evans said. Before the 2014 season, however, the NFL said dunking over the crossbar — something Saints wide receiver Jimmy Graham did regularly — would result in the 15-yard penalty. This change to the rule by the NFL competition committee, though, made some sense. In previous instances dunking over the goalpost bent it, causing a delay in the game while it was reset. The Odell Beckham Jr. Penalty Making less sense is what happened to Beckham. The rookie receiver was penalized 15 yards after he spun the ball and danced behind it following a first-quarter touchdown — his 10th score of the season — against the Rams in late December. “I don’t think spinning the ball in front of myself is taunting anybody,” Beckham said. “That wasn’t directed to anybody. I spun the ball in front of me. I don’t think it was even past my feet. “I didn’t quite understand the penalty.” And neither do I. Follow Jeff on Twitter @JFedotin  

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