Prep celebration rules questioned

One of the area's top players, T.J. Peeler (1) of third-ranked Broad Run, faces a suspension because of two unsportsmanlike penalties.
One of the area's top players, T.J. Peeler (1) of third-ranked Broad Run, faces a suspension because of two unsportsmanlike penalties. (Tracy A. Woodward/the Washington Post)
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By Paul Tenorio
Wednesday, November 4, 2009

When T.J. Peeler from Broad Run High School crossed the goal line early in the first quarter Friday night in a game against Potomac Falls, he smacked the football twice in his hands, then turned and leaped to meet a teammate with a chest bump.

Peeler, who is one of the top running backs in the Washington area and has orally committed to play at Pittsburgh next year, was simply enjoying with a teammate his 63-yard touchdown run, but his celebration quickly drew a penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct -- one of two such calls Peeler would receive in the game for chest bumping after a touchdown. The calls would earn Peeler a permanent place on the bench for the remainder of the contest, and perhaps for the Spartans' next game -- a Virginia AA Region II semifinal on Nov. 20.

Peeler's chest-bump penalties are the most recent example of a crackdown on excessive touchdown celebrations that has moved from the National Football League to college football and now to high school football games across the country. In the Washington area this fall, a wide receiver from 13th-ranked McNamara was flagged for pointing to the sky after a touchdown, and a Gwynn Park defender was penalized for pointing up at the sky after intercepting a pass. The player, who said after the game that the gesture was a tribute to his deceased grandfather, nonetheless cost his team yardage.

"What's happening is in the old days, there was a certain level of celebration that was allowed. Now it's basically no celebration," said Bill McGregor, who is in his 28th year as head coach at DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville.

There are some who view the crackdown as necessary -- ridding the high school game of the scripted Sharpie-in-the-sock, cellphone-in-the-goalpost-padding type of touchdown celebrations that first appeared in the NFL a few years ago. Yet, just as the cleanup of those routines earned the NFL a new nickname -- the No Fun League -- so too has the recent emphasis on toning down player celebrations in high school left many coaches, players and spectators asking: How far can you go before you take the joy out of the sport?

"It's kids having fun," said Mike Burnett, head coach at Broad Run, the third-ranked team in the area. "If you can't celebrate your hard work and success, I don't see the point in playing. If we want them to have success and not celebrate, I'm not sure what your point is."

The National Federation of State High School Associations sent a "point of emphasis" memo to athletic directors across the country before the 2009 season reminding them of the need for good sportsmanship in games. It called specific attention to federation rule 9-5-1, which reads, in part: "No player shall act in an unsportsmanlike manner once the officials assume authority for the contest." Examples of inappropriate behavior, it said, included but were not limited to, "Baiting or taunting acts or words or insignia worn which engenders ill will," "Using profanity, insulting or vulgar language or gestures," or "Any delayed, excessive or prolonged act by which a player attempts to focus attention upon himself."

The Maryland and Virginia state high school federations, as well as the District, play under NFHS guidelines, according to NFHS assistant director Bob Colgate.

The problem, according to several coaches and former coaches, is that the wording of the rule is so broad that the area between the opinion of an official and the intention of an athlete can be quite gray.

"It really has become almost dependent on who the referee is, if he allows it or not," said Bryce Bevill, the head coach at McNamara. "It needs to be a rule or something that is put in place that's concrete that we can all go by because right now, some refs allow it and some don't."

Bevill's 13th-ranked Mustangs were affected by just such a ruling in a recent game against St. Albans, when senior wide receiver Brandon Coleman was flagged for excessive celebration after pointing to the sky following a 27-yard touchdown reception that gave the Mustangs a nine-point lead. The call pushed the extra point attempt back 15 yards, and though McNamara would go on to win the contest on the shoulders of another Coleman touchdown late in the fourth quarter, Bevill questioned the call and what it is supposed to teach the players.

"He just pointed to the sky, I couldn't get upset with him," Bevill said. "But you have to say something to him, so you say 'Know where you are, know how they are officiating the game.' The officials were calling a tight game, but it was a big catch, he scored a touchdown. He was not trying to show up anyone, he was just celebrating that he scored a touchdown."

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