Tomorrow is the first Sunday of professional football. Let us pray. "Dear Lord, let this be the year in which members of the National Football League finally come to understand that all of their on-field dancing and showboating only debases themselves, their profession and the uniforms that they wear. Amen."

Besides, what in the world are they celebrating?

Some things in life are worth getting worked up about. The birth of a child? I'll mark that occasion. The life of a loved one called home by the Lord? That's worth celebrating. An A on a homework assignment? Cheers for that.

A job promotion, discovery of a cure, winning the spelling bee, the solemn commitment of two people in marriage, the reunion of families? All worth rejoicing about.

A division or conference championship, a Super Bowl victory, the defeat of the Dallas Cowboys? I'll beat the drum for any one of those.

But tackling a runner behind the line of scrimmage? Breaking up a pass downfield? Gimme a break.

Check them out, though. Grown men, praising themselves to the sky, holding one-man jubilees, all because -- get this -- they did what they are paid to do on a play. And believe me, they are paid better than 90 percent of the nation to do what they do each Sunday.

The average salary -- average, mind you -- of a player in the National Football League is "about a million dollars," according to Carl Francis, the NFL Players Association's communications director.

Another thing: All that celebrating at the completion of a play is mostly phony anyway. Don't think for one second that those are spontaneous expressions of pure joy by players carried away at having done something well. They aren't. Neither do those antics represent the behavior of carefree guys out to have a little fun in between downs.

Hot-dogging, trash-talking and those dance routines are deliberate, well-thought-out efforts of the self-indulgent. The fact that they can stop their self-glorifying on a dime and get ready for the next play only underscores the insincerity of their celebrations in the first place. They're simply out to draw attention to themselves. And it's such a waste of time, and so demeaning to a sport that is supposed to be a team effort.

Equally galling is the help they get in dishonoring themselves. The players couldn't get away with their on-field histrionics without the patronizing tolerance of owners and coaches. The bosses high up in their skyboxes seem to be saying, "So what if the boys in . . . (oops 'scuse me) . . . on the field want to cut loose with a little jivin' and high-fivin' -- as long as the stadium stays packed and TV revenues are up. . . . Besides, it's a little something extra for the fans who love being entertained."

But here's a fan who believes all that woofing, taunting and showing off after the ball is blown dead are examples of unsportsmanlike conduct. Maybe that kind of foolishness is okay for the World Wrestling Federation, but it's not all right for football.

The NCAA sees it the same way. There's a rule banning on-field showboating in college football, and the sport's all the better for it. Still, people calling the shots in professional football seem perfectly content to allow their players to clown it up.

Except for a ban on taking the helmet off after scoring a touchdown, NFL rules allow players to turn football into a game of strutting, finger-pointing and cheap vaudeville. Even rookies, who haven't established that they're up to playing in the NFL, have worked out their post-play exhibitionist moves. Kickoff is showtime. That's what it has come to. And that's what has to stop.

One of my younger Post colleagues tells me its a generation and cultural thing -- that what's now called showboating is a way the younger black athlete likes to express his feelings. He also accuses me of being from the old Willie Wood school of football. To that I plead guilty.

Wood, a former all-pro and Hall of Famer with the Green Bay Packers, played quarterback at Armstrong, a rival D.C. high school when I was playing. On his way to making the All Metropolitan team, Wood used me along with most of my Dunbar teammates as practice fodder during our occasional scrimmages. He took us to school all right.

So maybe this graying journalist is out of it. I was raised on the professional football playing of Marion Motley, Ollie Matson, Lenny Moore and Roosevelt Brown. I sat at RFK Stadium and before the TV screen cheering the likes of Larry Brown and Bobby Mitchell. Charley Taylor and Art Monk both had a thing that they did in the end zone after scoring, but they were all business between the goal lines.

And it's not all ancient history. There was nothing bombastic about Walter Payton, but the way he carried the ball was awe-inspiring. Barry Sanders crossed the goal line with regularity, but he often tossed the ball to one of his linemen to spike.

All those guys are African Americans and All-Pros. And all but Larry Brown, Monk and Sanders are in the Hall of Fame. But none of those men needed to resort to grandstanding, mugging and cheap dramatics to let opponents or fans know he was on the field. Their playing did their talking.

One more point. Showboating is not a black thing. It was Mark Gastineau of the New York Jets who brought ego-tripping on-field with his "sack dance." And who among Washington fans can forget former quarterback Gus Frerotte's celebration of his touchdown run when he head-butted a concrete wall and ended up leaving the game with a sprained neck.

There was a time when professional football was all football. In those days, players didn't need comedy and hokum to win applause. They rocked the stands by the way in which they played. And in the process of achieving excellence on the field, they won something else. It was something that money won't buy and that showboating can't earn. A reward more lasting and, in the end, more gratifying. It's called respect.

The writer is a member of the editorial page staff.