KISSIMMEE, Fla. — Last week, during the NFC’s Pro Bowl practice, Odell Beckham Jr. snagged a football and bolted for the back of the end zone, unleashing a vicious windmill dunk over the goal post. The crowd roared in approval at Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports complex.
It was what the Pro Bowl is all about. The fans packed the stands for showmanship. They won’t remember who won or lost the game, but Beckham gave them a lasting memory.
Then again, should a player celebrate a touchdown in that manner Sunday during Super Bowl LI, it would draw a 15-yard penalty and a fine from the NFL — even though the highlight would be looped on sports networks and social media throughout the week.
The NFL’s dance with touchdown celebrations has long been an awkward one, a precarious balance between players exercising self-expression and league sanctions, between creativity and control. As the players adapted to the NFL’s additional guidelines on post-touchdown decorum, the discussion has been entertaining for fans, if a frustrating exercise for over-exuberant players.
When the Giants’ Homer Jones first spiked the football in 1965, the crowd screamed its approval. But Jones had hurled the ball to the ground because a new league rule threatened a fine if he fired it into the stands as he had wanted, and as his teammate Frank Gifford had done in prior seasons.
Through its then-new restriction, the NFL gave birth to the most widely recognized touchdown celebration in history.
Scoring a touchdown is one of the greatest individual accomplishments a player can achieve in a given game. Celebration is hard to suppress, and it has often produced moments more memorable than the scoring play itself.
The Internet is brimming with hours of clips depicting the game’s most indelible end-zone dances. There’s the “Ickey Shuffle,” debuted by Bengals running back Ickey Woods.
And then there’s the “Dirty Bird,” crafted by former Falcon Jamal Anderson.
This season, clips of Beckham’s “Thriller” dance or Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown’s twerking filled social-media streams for hours following game days, with views piling up into the hundreds of thousands.
But the flamboyance has been shunned by a league that has attempted to restrict in-game celebrations. It is an issue NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said the league will address — yet again — in the offseason.
“That’s something we’ll look at,” Goodell said Wednesday in Houston ahead of Super Bowl LI. “But it’s also something that we’ve been dealing with for well over 35 years since I’ve been in the league in the same concept: balancing sportsmanship, avoiding taunting and trying to allow players the ability to express themselves in an exuberant way to celebrate. We think that’s great. We want to see more of that. We want to see the players do that. But we want to see them do it respectfully to their teammates and their opponents.”
Over the past few seasons, the NFL’s increasing number of rules and fines has restricted its players’ ability to express themselves, to the disapproval of both those players and their fans.
“That’s what is missing from today’s fabric of the environment with the National Football League,” former NFL wide receiver and 2017 Hall of Fame finalist Terrell Owens said. “Obviously a lot of people now call it the ‘No Fun League,’ but I think that’s what is really taking the joy and the enjoyment out of the game. Really, for fans, they not only want to see their team win; they don’t just only want to see a good product from both squads, but they want to see some entertainment. That’s what I tried to provide without messing with the integrity of the game.”
Owens will be immortalized on one level whenever he enters the Hall of Fame, but his touchdown celebrations have already reached that status. His showmanship influenced an entire generation of NFL athletes.
Still, it started before Owens, who said he didn’t grow up as a student of the game but was aware of the players that had come before him — and danced in the end zone while they were there. With the first football spike came an era of innovative celebrations that has spanned more than half a century. It continued with Billy “White Shoes” Johnson and “The Funky Chicken” dance in the 1970s. The Washington Redskins of the early ’80s created a celebratory group of receivers and the occasional running back called “The Fun Bunch,” which followed offensive touchdowns with a loosely choreographed group high-five in the end zone.
“Whenever I hear touchdown celebrations, it’s just Billy White Shoes for me,” Denver Broncos linebacker Von Miller said. “I think that’s just one of the first [players] to change it up. That was way before my time, but when I think about celebrations and dances, that’s what comes to my mind. I feel like whenever you make a great play, I think that’s the icing on top. A great play is going to be a great play. When you put that celebration on top of it, it makes it even better.”
There were rules in place during the 1980s specifying that excessive celebrations could be considered unsportsmanlike conduct, although the verbiage was more relaxed. It wasn’t enforced as it is today, likely because of the influence that players such as Owens, Deion Sanders, Chad Johnson (later Ochocinco) and Randy Moss had during the 1990s and 2000s. Sanders high-stepped his way into the end zone, Owens stood on the Dallas Cowboys’ midfield star at Texas Stadium and pulled out a Sharpie from his sock to sign a ball, Johnson proposed to a cheerleader and wore a faux-Hall of Fame jacket on the sidelines, and Moss pretended to moon Packers fans at Lambeau Field.
These players put their own spin on showmanship, but they were also criticized for it by fans, commentators and and players who felt that the behavior wasn’t upholding the integrity of the game. One celebration from Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Doug Baldwin drew particular ire, when he used the football to simulate a bowel movement in Super Bowl XLIX.
“What I was doing was only having fun with the game,” Owens said of his own celebrations. “That just motivated me more, and I understood that I wasn’t doing anything obscene; I wasn’t doing anything embarrassing not only to myself but to the organization. Some of the stuff I’m sure toed the line of the conduct part of it, but at the time I was scoring touchdowns and I was celebrating. They really didn’t have nothing in place that they could take away from the celebrations.”
Over the past decade, the NFL has enforced tougher penalties on what it deems excessive celebrations. It first, in 2006, banned the usage of props and incorporated a 15-yard penalty for anything excessive and later, in 2014, abolished dunking on the goal posts.
While the league has continued to legislate against celebrations — with current rules outlawing displays that are “prolonged” or involve foreign objects, falling to the ground, using the ball as a prop, or two or more players performing premeditated choreography — it has also apparently recognized the appeal of such actions to fans. The league-owned NFL Network currently features a show starring former players Ike Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew called “Celebration Station,” in which the two recap the best such moments from game action. Brown’s attempt to mimic Spider-Man and stick to the goal post after a touchdown drew a penalty during the game but was highlighted as part of the show’s “Top 5 Best Celebrations of 2015.”
The penalties have been puzzling to current players, notably for Redskins cornerback Josh Norman, who repeatedly questioned why the league fined him for miming a bow and arrow after an interception against the Cleveland Browns in Week 4. The rules have also been the subject of parody, with Comedy Central’s “Key and Peele” skewering the league with a fictional rule on the allowable number of pelvic thrusts following a touchdown. That sketch was invoked at the Super Bowl when Commissioner Roger Goodell was asked whether he believed the rules required more clarity.
Roger Goodell asked if NFL should implement McCringleberry "Two Pump Limit" pic.twitter.com/KrxWqiKPkZ
— gifdsports (@gifdsports) February 1, 2017
Owens believes, whatever its reasons, that the league is taking the fun out of the game.
“[Owens] is a showman, and that’s what you should do,” Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Mike Evans said. “It’s hard to score touchdowns in the NFL. If you get in there, you should throw a party. I wish we could a little bit more, but you’ve got to stay within the confinements of the rules.”
Some players have continued to find ways to express themselves, however, legally or not. Beckham has been part of this social-media dancing era in which players break out the dab or Michael Jackson moves; Brown was a noted favorite among Pro Bowl players when asked who had the best touchdown celebrations, though he has racked up a few fines along the way.
Whether the league chooses to relax its celebration rules, players have shown that they will continue to express themselves — even as the NFL gives them fewer ways to do so.
“All the stuff back then, we can’t do it now,” Evans said. “I wanted to dunk on the goal post and things like that. … I’m trying to figure out a signature touchdown dance. I can’t think of anything without getting fined.”