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Policy seeks to take emotion out of game

The NCAA's new  'zero tolerance' rule

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Clemson senior forward Trevor Booker flashed a sly smile as he recalled one of the many thunderous dunks he's delivered during his college career. This one in particular occurred last February, early in the second half of a home win over Maryland. Teammate Terrence Oglesby missed a three-point attempt from the corner, but as the ball clanked off the rim, Booker corralled it with the palm of his hand and whipped it back through the net.

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Booker landed, howled and gesticulated to the delight of a delirious crowd. Clemson Coach Oliver Purnell said afterward that the play "ignited us," and indeed, the Tigers followed the dunk with a 25-8 run.

Were that sequence to carry out in that manner this season, though, Clemson's momentum likely would have been jarred by an official's whistle and a resulting technical foul. Under a new zero-tolerance policy approved by the NCAA, penalizing excessive celebrations will be a point of emphasis this season. The regulation has left coaches and players -- specifically the most emotive ones -- across the ACC concerned that one of their sport's most marketable aspects -- its raw emotion -- is being legislated out of the game.

"They made the rule, so I've got to abide by it," said Booker, who was listed by several players at ACC media day last month as someone most likely to be affected by the new rule. "I don't agree with it, but there's not too much I can do about it. I mean, I like to show my emotions on the court. It should be fine as long as it's not toward another player."

That, according to ACC officiating supervisor John Clougherty, is exactly the point. Clougherty said the crackdown on excessive celebrations is meant to deter players from showing up or embarrassing a member of the opposing team. Among the actions Clougherty said will be closely monitored are pointing, gesturing and "muscling up after a dunk." Technical fouls will be handed out for any offense.

Virginia Tech Coach Seth Greenberg said he expects officials to use good judgment and that Clougherty visited with each ACC team to explain the way the new rule would be implemented.

"I think they want to take away the taunting; I don't think that's bad," Greenberg said. "Now, if it goes over to taking away the passion and the energy and the enthusiasm, I think the officials are going to have to use common sense. What was the intent of the reaction? Was the intent of the reaction, 'I'm excited about a play for my team'? Or was the intent of the reaction to embarrass the opponent?"

Greenberg then acknowledged perhaps the most problematic facet: Officials will be left to their own discretion. The NCAA implemented a similar policy before college football season, and the results have been questionable at best. An excessive-celebration penalty called during the Georgia-Louisiana State game Oct. 3 was a considerable factor in LSU's victory. The Southeastern Conference later admitted the penalty was a mistake and suspended the officiating crew responsible for the call.

Georgia Tech Coach Paul Hewitt watched that game and recalled thinking, "What did he do?" after Georgia wide receiver A.J. Green was penalized following a touchdown celebration. One of Hewitt's concerns with the rule is that it places added pressure on officials to decide whether to make a subjective call.

"Did you see it? You didn't see it? You're going to go to the monitor?" Hewitt said. "That's just another thing you're piling on [the referee's] plate, and I think it's hard enough to keep up with these guys, who are unbelievable athletes, who move at a high rate of speed, the transition from offense to defense and vice versa can happen in the snap of a finger, and now we're putting something else on them."

Several coaches and players offered a scenario in which a player dunks and then points or says something to a teammate who happens to be standing near an opposing player. Will the official, in the rush of the moment, be able to discern at whom pronouncement was directed? Or will he blow his whistle, mistakenly believing the intent of action to be malicious toward an opposing player?

"That's how people go on runs, especially when you're at home and you've got that type of crowd," Virginia Tech guard Malcolm Delaney said. "If you disrespecting another player or something, that's a different thing. But it's part of the game. I don't think they should take that part of the game out."

The taunting rule is just one of several points of emphasis for officials this season. A new blocking-charging area will be located underneath the basket, though it will not be marked with a line as it is in the NBA. Replay usage will be expanded to determine the severity of fouls. Three-second and traveling violations will be more closely scrutinized. But the taunting rule seems to be the one grabbing most players' attention.

"It's definitely going to be tough for all the players, especially when somebody gets dunked on," said Maryland guard Greivis Vasquez, who's been known to be excitable on the court from time to time. "You going to just keep your emotions in or you going to say nothing? You just going to be like this [stone-faced]? It's going to be hard. It's going to be silly. It's going to be funny."

Booker, for one, did not initially find anything humorous about the new rule.

"I think they tried to single me out," Booker said. Who's they? The 6-foot-7 forward broke into a smile. "Whoever made the rule change."

And when he performs another play similar to the one he made against Maryland last season?

"If I get a dunk like that again," Booker said, "I might just have to get a tech."



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