The NFL has announced that it is “putting the fun back in football” by relaxing the rules governing touchdown celebrations, to allow players “more room to have fun after they make big plays”. The letter to fans from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell promised (with the help of some illustrative GIFs) the return of snow angels, group demonstrations, use of the ball as a prop, and other “spontaneous displays of emotion”.
Article 1, Section 3, Rule 12 (Player Conduct) of the NFL Rulebook, which governs “unsportsmanlike conduct”, includes the following restrictions:
“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:
- 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.
- Two or more players engaging in prolonged, excessive, premeditated, or choreographed celebrations or demonstrations.
- 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…”
Various penalties apply on a breach of these rules, including the loss of 15 yards from the succeeding spot (or whatever spot the Referee deems equitable) and players may also be individually fined.
The NFL’s strict approach to, and application of, the rules governing touchdown celebrations has resulted in a number of noteworthy fines and penalties in the past (not to mention heated debate over the ‘best celebration of all time’):
- In the 1980s, the Washington Redskins began performing a choreographed group high-five celebration, gaining them the nickname “The Fun Bunch” and providing the catalyst for the NFL’s initial introduction of a ban on “excessive celebration” by way of a rule change in 1983;
- Wide receiver Johnnie Morton is known for his endzone dances, including The Worm, which, as a move performed on the ground, falls foul of subsection (d) to Article 1, Section 3 of Rule 12;
- In 2012, Asa Jackson of the Baltimore Ravens, along with a teammate, famously celebrated Gangnam Style;
- In Super Bowl XLIX, Doug Baldwin of the Seattle Seahawks celebrated a touchdown with a performance using the ball as a prop, which came to be known as the “poopdown”, earning him a $11,025 fine in addition to the inevitable 15 yard penalty.
Of course, in the UK and Europe, we are no strangers to elaborate celebrations of point scoring in sport – from somersault and backflips, to the less gymnastic signs, symbols and salutes, and some which have been rightly criticised and penalised as offensive or excessive. In many sports, such celebrations are similarly regulated.
For example, IFAB, the body responsible for the laws of Football (or soccer if you will), also prohibits “excessive celebration”, though adopts a somewhat less stringent approach compared to the NFL’s in recent years. The provisions of Law 12.3 include the following restrictions:
“Players can celebrate when a goal is scored, but the celebration must not be excessive; choreographed celebrations are not encouraged and must not cause excessive time-wasting. Leaving the field of play is not a cautionable offence but players should return as soon as possible.
A player must be cautioned for:
- Climbing onto a perimeter fence
- Gesturing in a provocative, derisory or inflammatory way
- Covering the head or face with a mask or other similar item
- Removing the shirt or covering the head with the shirt.”
Looking to the examples above, and reading both the NFL and IFAB rules, many of the policy reasons for regulating goal celebrations are clear. For example, there is an obvious need to prohibit certain forms of vulgar and offensive behaviour. Similarly, the health and safety of players must be considered, with a view to avoiding a celebration culture which encourages the performance of increasingly risky or dangerous acts. For example, whilst it is not uncommon to see Premier League footballers perform somersault and backflips, one does not have to look far to find examples of such celebrations gone wrong. In 2014, for example, a football player in India’s Mizoram Premier League died after falling on his head whilst attempting a somersault. The need to regulate these performances is arguably all the more apparent when one consider that sport is so often a family pastime and goal celebrations have a tendency to be repeated in the playground.
Yet celebrations also have their merits. As the NFL has acknowledged, they add fun to the game, and in particular to the excitement of goal (or touchdown). They can also take on a life of their own outside of the game. Gareth Bale, for example, sought to protect the commercial potential of his goal celebration by registering a trade mark (albeit now surrendered) for his “11 of Hearts” gesture. Meanwhile, England fly-half Owen Farrell frequently uses his kick or try celebrations to promote awareness for Duchenne muscular dystrophy by performing Jack’s Salute, a symbol for the charity Joining Jack.
Clearly, there are a myriad of concerns when it comes to regulating on-pitch celebrations. Issues of health & safety, integrity, discrimination and the overarching need to instil (or at least enforce!) the most basic levels of sportsmanship are all very real and legitimate concerns. This is a difficult line to tread in almost every aspect. The NFL has decided it is time to relax its position slightly and no doubt the results will be entertaining for all to watch!