The worst-case scenario for the next college football championship game would begin with a high step and end with a flag.
In the excitement of the moment and safely distanced from defenders, a touchdown-bound runner would high step his way from the 5-yard-line into the end zone for a game-winning, championship-deciding score. By his third step, the field would be littered with yellow flags. The touchdown wouldn’t count. An unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty would be assessed from the 5.
And the championship would go to the other team.
That’s an extreme example of how the NCAA’s new taunting rule could impact the next season. In the past, touchdown taunts and end-zone celebrations also resulted in 15-yard penalties. But the scores counted.
Players still will celebrate at their own risk under the new rule. Yet the risk is so much greater. Too great, perhaps.
Having a championship decided by a holding call or a false-start penalty is one thing. But having it determined by an exuberant touchdown-maker who can’t resist celebrating his achievement in the face of an opponent might seem like overkill, especially when the celebration isn’t as obvious as a high step.
No one can debate the intent of spiking the football at the feet of a beaten opponent in the end zone. Other celebrations are more grey than black-and-white.
Could a team lose the national championship on an end zone salute? A two-second pose?
John Wright, a Knoxville-based SEC official, says conference officials won’t be “nitpicky.”
“If somebody turns a flip or flips a bird at somebody, a team should be penalized,” he said. “But if somebody does something borderline, we will not call it. Everybody in the stadium will know (that it was an unsportsmanlike act) if we call it.
“The way we have been told (by the SEC), these things have to jump out at you. If a guy stands over somebody and beats his chest, we know that’s a foul.”
Steve Shaw, the supervisor of SEC football officials, has made the new rule a point of emphasis in off-season meetings. The group will convene again in Birmingham, Ala., in mid-July for their final preparation.
“We’ve watched a lot of videotape,” he said. “The goal is to get everybody on the same page.
We want to use good judgment. We don’t want to be too technical.”
Maybe SEC officials will take a common-sense approach to the rule and punish only clearly flagrant acts. But what about officials in other conferences? The old celebration rule certainly wasn’t enforced uniformly.
Remember last year’s Pinstripe Bowl? Kansas State’s Adrian Hilburn scored on a 30-yard touchdown run to pull his team within two points of Syracuse with 1:13 to play.
The touchdown was followed with a brief salute, directed at the fans behind the Syracuse bench. An official didn’t approve. He flagged Hilburn and penalized the Wildcats 15 yards before their two-point conversion attempt. When the conversion failed, Syracuse only had to recover an attempted onside kick to secure the victory.
Tough way to lose a game. An even tougher loss could occur under the new rule.
Don’t get the wrong idea. The rule wasn’t the work of bureaucrats. It was a coaches call.
“Absolutely,” Shaw said. “They wanted this rule.”
Their thinking: Players who might not have been deterred by a 15-yard, post-touchdown penalty will restrain themselves from taunting when six points is at stake.
That makes sense. But nonsense sometimes prevails in the light-headed exhilaration of a touchdown.
The exhilaration won’t last long if the touchdown doesn’t count.
John Adams is a senior columnist. He may be reached at 865-342-6284 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at http://twitter.com/johnadamskns