In the perfect NFL game, nobody smiles. Not even on the inside. Players react to scoring touchdowns the way they might react to, say, gall bladder surgery, or lukewarm beet-and-turnip stew, or single-tracking on the Red Line.
Create a moment of athletic brilliance in front of 78,000 beer-swilling fanatics while opponents attempt to decapitate you and TV cameras roll? Congratulations. Now please return to the bench and open your textbook to page 274, where we’ll be reviewing the history of the Glass-Steagall Act during this commercial break.
Early in the Redskins’ 27-20 win over the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday, Vernon Davis forgot the rules. He made the unforgivable mistake of having fun. Sure, he had just caught his first touchdown pass in more than two years, for his hometown team, in a stadium he grew up visiting, against a division rival. And sure, his “celebration” — a football jump shot toward the goal posts — was an inherently non-violent act, so long as the jump shot isn’t being launched by Rajon Rondo. And sure, there wasn’t one single sentient being inside FedEx Field — including Eagles fans — who saw that motion and cried out to the heavens for retribution. Heck, the Philly folks were probably just curious if Davis could help out the Sixers.
No matter. The penalty flag came, and the Redskins were dinged 15 yards for “unsportsmanlike conduct” — an unsportsmanlike jump shot! — and Davis went back to the bench in agony.
“I have a contrite heart right now. I honestly do,” Davis said after the game. “It just makes you feel bad. Seriously. There’s some regret there, because I’m hurting the team. I went to the bench with my head down. I know I just scored a touchdown, but I went to the bench with my head down, like ‘Man, this feels bad. This is horrible.’ “
Well done, NFL. Pretty scoring plays should definitely make athletes feel horrible and contrite. This entertainment product might occasionally entertain, at which point the authorities need to step in, stifling anyone’s laughter with a yellow muzzle.
Davis’s problem was he used football as a prop in his joy, which is verboten — unless Rob Gronkowski is spiking the ball in the end zone, in which case the NFL’s official Twitter account will glorify the moment not once but twice. That same account also twice saluted Odell Beckham Jr. for triple-jumping in the end zone on Sunday, track-and-field events being permitted while archery remains outlawed.
This penalty was absurd enough that it prompted a surge of scorn. Even Sports Illustrated’s Peter King, who often defends the NFL, wrote that the league “has lost its cotton-pickin’ mind.”
More importantly, this one mattered. The 15-yard penalty meant that Redskins cyborg place kicker Dustin Hopkins couldn’t boot the ball out of the end zone. That gave Eagles returner Wendell Smallwood a chance, and 86 yards later, the to-that-point-incompetent Eagles had a touchdown and their first points. Sure, blame Washington’s special teams. But don’t forget why they were put in that position.
“I mean, you can’t breathe anymore,” said Josh Norman, who was penalized and fined this season for a pantomimed bow-and-arrow celebration.
“You can’t do anything any more,” Will Blackmon said at the next locker.
“Hell, I’m surprised we can go out there and suit up and play the game,” Norman said.
“I’m surprised we can high-five,” Blackmon added. “High-fives might be 10 yards next week, I don’t know.”
What is the constituency for this? Whose complaints are we solving? Which outraged fans are we pacifying? Were basketball purists horrified by Davis’s form? (“It was a terrible jump shot,” Blackmon pointed out.) Is it a slippery slope that we’re trying to flatten? One day they’re shooting jump shots, and the next day they might be infecting footballs with the Zika virus?
These, remember, are grown men being scolded like unruly third graders. Grown men who are often rather thoughtful about this profession they’ve chosen.
“Fans want to see excitement,” said Norman, who tried to stop himself from commenting but couldn’t manage the trick. “They come for this. They work their tails off during the week, go to work to their 9 to 5. They get a day off on Sundays to come out here and watch their team put on a show. I mean, shoot, that’s what we are, we’re entertainers. Whether you like it or not, that’s what we are, man. We want to have fun with you guys. We want to have fun with the game.
“It’s ridiculous,” Norman went on. “And if they’re going to say I’m outspoken about it, so be it, because this is what we do man. Having fun. Gladiators in the sport. Back in the day, they celebrated, they had their time, so why can’t we have ours? I don’t understand it, man, I really don’t.”
Norman is an outspoken extrovert who dresses like Batman and poses for magazine covers. Spencer Long, on the other hand, is a 315-pound Nebraskan who plays offensive line and isn’t often in the business of celebrating touchdowns. But he isn’t closer to figuring it out than Norman, this renewed focus on purging the game of joy. (Unsportsmanlike conduct penalties were up 56 percent in the first month of this season, according to ESPN, and most of those calls were for prohibited celebrations.)
“It’s really counterintuitive, if you ask me,” Long said. “The fans love it. We love it. It’s not taunting — he wasn’t taunting anybody. He’s not getting in anybody else’s face. He just threw the ball in the air, celebrating. I mean, I think that’s a win-win for everybody. Everybody loves to see that.”
Well, not everybody. There must be somebody out there, somebody with a heart made of charcoal briquettes, who sees a happy Davis and shudders, turning around to look for a teacher with a ruler. Which part of the NFL constituency is this? That answer eludes me.
“I have no idea, man,” Niles Paul said.
“They’re not really allowing us to have fun,” Chris Baker said. “But we understand that now.”
“I mean, you have to cut us some slack,” Davis said. “There has to be something that we can do to celebrate. Just something. I don’t think there should be a penalty for everything.”
“It’s not even like he’s showing off,” Redskins Coach Jay Gruden said. “He might have been flipping it to the cheerleader back behind the goalposts.”
“When is enough enough, you know?” Norman asked. “It’s just getting too ridiculous.”
Norman offered a strong and impassioned response, one of the stars of this game trying to stop his sport from slamming a sledgehammer on its thumb. His words were nearly perfect.
One problem, though. Norman smiled as he talked. Smiling isn’t allowed.