Should Football Penalize Celebrating and Taunting?

The case for letting athletes celebrate, taunt, and more.

Posted Feb 15, 2009

Should psychological expressions be penalized in sports?

The past two months have seen many high points of the recent football season, as both colleges and the professional league matched their top teams in postseason clashes. The results have often been entertaining, with ample suspense, surprise, drama, subplots, and feats of remarkable athleticism.

Many games hit climactic moments with extraordinary plays. Sadly, some of these moments were tarnished by penalties, as the exuberant athletes showed too much joy at key moments. It is apparently against the rules to express happiness in some ways.

The purpose of this post is to explore the case for dropping penalties for celebrating, taunting, and other psychological acts.

I see penalties in sports as punishment for breaking rules that enable the sport to be conducted fairly. Doing something that might cause physical injury to an opposing player or something that seeks unfair advantage is wrong.

But celebrating? A football player on television has worked, sweated, and suffered for years. He has endured the pain and discipline of training. Very likely he has suffered painful injuries and had to recover from them. The possibility that an injury will end his career on the next play is always present. After enduring all that, he has a brief moment of glory - say, picking up a fumbled ball or snatching one thrown toward someone else and running it back for a touchdown. Such moments in a big game may come only once or twice in many years. But if he looks too happy, the referees blow the whistle and punish his entire team.

I say, let the guys celebrate! So what if some of them do pre-arranged dances or leaps? It won't hurt our nation's future. Nothing real is at stake in football games. It's just entertainment. Arguably it is more entertaining if the players show their joy.

Some would, others would not. This I think adds to the entertainment. It allows teams to have psychologically different attitudes, thus increasing the variety and, by extension, the interest value to viewers. Paul Brown, the legendary coach of the Cleveland Browns and one of the men who revolutionized the sport, took a dim view of spontaneous celebrations, telling his players, "If you happen to make it to the endzone, act like you've been there before." Fine! A bit of class and discipline give personality to a team. But if other teams want to let it all hang out, that's fine too. It could even be instructive to learn whether, in the long run, disciplined restraint or emotional exuberance makes for better team performance.

A similar argument can be made about taunting. Football (like some other sports, though with notable exceptions such as boxing) now severely penalizes players who taunt their opponents. Taunting is an expression of dominance and a technique for prolonging it. For example, a player who wags a finger at an opponent who is unable to catch him in time to prevent a score would be guilty of taunting.

Again, though, taunting increases the entertainment value, as well as adding a psychological dimension to the competition that is ultimately interesting. My own curiosity stems in part from wondering whether taunting would really help or would backfire in the long run. And just as some coaches discourage their players from disparaging the opposition prior to a game, because disparaging comments could motivate the opponents to try harder, some would severely object to taunting. Others, meanwhile, might let their players show their emotion and use taunting as a psychological ploy to dominate their opponents.

If one approach works better, it may prevail. If it depends on circumstances, we might eventually learn what those are. If taunting has no effect on game outcomes, well, that would be interesting to know too.

In general, taunting, celebrating, and other psychological ploys may become part of game strategy. Letting players engage in them would add to the entertainment value of the games and would possibly offer some insight into what competitive strategies work best.