Unsportsmanlike Call

Curator's Note

Donovan McNabb's celebration over his successful scamper to the sidelines drew criticism a couple of weekends ago. In just 30 seconds, the Fox clip includes the penalty, the stunt, and the summary judgment by commentators Joe Buck and Troy Aikman. It also lays out a fundamental contradiction in professional football, namely, the emphasis on teamwork and lowkey conformity espoused alongside the many rewards conferred on sensational individuals.


McNabb is an especially complicated embodiment of the tension, at once self-aware, gracious, and frankly good at being a celebrity. Not only has he had an especially difficult relationship with the Philadelphia fans (almost every time an "issue" comes up on ESPN concerning his behavior, play or shifting status, someone remembers that he was booed on draft day in 1999), but he has also been taunted by TO and sniped at by Rush Limbaugh, who famously said he was "overrated" because he was black. McNabb handled this and other silliness with aplomb, noting that the media hubbub was its own beast, and that he'd been dealing with people like this all his life.


This season, now over for the Eagles, brought its own serial crises, from McNabb's confessed ignorance of the league's overtime-tie rule (11/17) to his benching during the Ravens game on 11/23. He's said the phone call was a function of overexcitement at the drubbing his team was delivering to the Giants (the clip here begins on Eli Manning's uneasy face before it cuts to his rival's antics). But as much as McNabb would like to explain or forget it, the image of phone call circulated long enough to seem a last gasp of Eagles drama, inspiring Buck and Aikman (and the ref who handed down a five-yard penalty) to engage in predictable finger-wagging.


Questions: Rather than wonder what "runs through that guy's head," we might wonder what's at stake in the policing action, for the NFL, for the white commentators, for McNabb? How does such flamboyance drive the business of sports even as it's decried and judged? And how is it that such a stunt would be termed "unsportsmanlike"? How does such a verdict redraw the boundaries on what is "sportsmanlike"? And how is all of this trivia a function of TV per se, the camera's capacity to follow McNabb to the sideline and zoom to the act, the Fox guys pronouncing like gods from their booth, and the ways fans have learned to watch the games -- with narrative and measurement provided minute by minute, as if these are the same thing: yards, drives, points, completed passes and interceptions. As everyone knows by now, it's hard to be a (black) quarterback on TV, especially if you're willing to hold press conferences about every little nit the reporters want to pick.



Great clip and questions!  It seems to me that part of what's at stake -- and part of what drives the business of sports media -- is exactly the opportunity to judge and cry "foul" over others' behavior.  There are rules regulating behavior, both written and unwritten; when they're violated and our expectations about what "should" occur aren't met, we seek some kind of redress ... either revising the rules or sanctionig the behavior.  In some ways this incident parallels the longer-standing concerns over, say, steroid use ("It's blasphemous that [Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco; insert your favorite sports figure working under a cloud here] disrespected the game in the way they did!") or malfeasance by political leaders ("It's blasphemous that [Bill Clinton, Elliot Spitzer, Ted Stevens, Rod Blagojevich; insert your favorite political figure working under a cloud here] disrespected the office and the American public in the way they did!").  We, as fans/citizens, get to say what matters ... and the media system caters to that interest, stoking the narrative of outrage at perceived infractions that disrupt the order of things and suggesting that rules of proper conduct need to be (re-)established.


Linking this comment to Tom's post, what we see here is also how consumers of sports texts are encouraged to react to and "correct" actions we judge to be inadequate or insufficient.  Perhaps this illusion of choice and control is part of what's so appealing about sports-related media content.

Your post reminded me of the incident that took place in January of 2005 in a game between the Minnesota Vikings and the Green Bay Packers.  After wide receiver scored a touchdown in that game, he made a mooning gesture towards the Packers fans at Lambeau Field, much to the chagrin of Joe Buck (the same announcer in this clip).  The video of that celebration is located here:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5dmqGg6Ccvw.  Buck immediately offered a reprimand with the statement, "That's a disgusting act by Randy Moss!" Again, a white commentator making a judgment against a black player for what, in all seriousness, is no where near as grave a transgression as the tone of his reprimand conveys.  There was no broadcast replay of the act, as Buck noted, "there was no reason to show it again, especially something as revolting as that."  A day after the incident, Indianapolis Colts head coach Tony Dungy (one of the NFL's few black head coaches) came to Moss' defense and while he said it might not be something you want to be seen on national TV, he saw it as a "kind of humorous" response to a "tradition" among Packers fans.  Apparently, "they moon the visiting team's bus.  And they go all the way."


The case with McNabb, therefore, appears to be another clear exaggeration from announcers who are concerned about being politically correct, but are also serving to police flamboyance from, as you said, their god positions.  The silly thing is that the NFL is driven by the flamboyance and character of these types of players and plays (Chad "Ocho Cinco," Ray Lewis' pre-game strut, Joey Porter's celebratory leg kick, and Terrell Owens' weekly antics).  Fans get excited to see those players be who they are, celebrations included.  But for some reason, anything outside of the actions of hike, run, pass, catch, is ground for being deemed unsportsmanlike, defined by the NFL as "any act contrary to the generally understood principles of sportsmanship."  Sounds similar to Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's "I know it when I see it" line in reference to obscenity.


Still, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has continued the decade-or-so-long trend of curtailing player celebrations and now any premeditated celebration constitutes an unsportsmanlike penalty.  That includes any celebration in which a player leaves his feet or goes to the ground, although the unique exception has been made for the Green Bay Packers, who are still allowed to celebrate a touchdown via the Lambeau Leap.  One of the questions I've yet to find an answer for is why the Lambeau Leap was given the free pass when other equally harmless celebrations were forced into extinction.  I'm just not sure of the lesson in sportsmanship that Goodell, the NFL, and announcers like Joe Buck are trying to teach us.  Should fans of the game expect the players on the field to act almost robotically (like the Manning brothers)?  Is this a judgment on parenting, in that the NFL does not want its players to set a bad example for young fans?  Does the NFL fear the implications of approving flamboyance?  Will the integrity of the game somehow be ruined?  Or is the NFL merely trying to simplify the decision on what is unsporting, so that any act, regardless of context (like the Moss mooning) must be decried?


As a counter example I think of the world of professional soccer, governed by FIFA, where goal celebrations go fairly unchecked and announcers are far less likely to make judgments for us fans.P Players imitate airplanes, dive face forward, slide on their knees, make baby-rocking motions, complete acrobatic stunts, and some pull their shirts over their heads (in 1999, U.S. player Brandi Chastain pulled her shirt off, revealing a sports bra).  All of this adds to the enjoyment of the game.  The NFL's rigidity and condemnation, by comparison, seem ludicrous.

To underscore your point about the NFL’s conflicted approach to celebration, we might also consider Madden NFL ’09, where users are afforded the opportunity to orchestrate player celebrations that would undoubtedly draw penalties in actual NFL games.

Your post also highlights race as a central (though not always present) feature in the manufacture of the “unruly” and “disrespectful” athlete whose offensive self-aggrandizement violates established norms of sportsmanship. We can also find this construction in Budweiser’s recent ad campaign featuring the anti-authoritarian nihilism of Leon -- a fictionalized African-American football star in the mold of Terrell Owens.  Leon repeatedly ignores established norms of teamwork and self-sacrifice in favor of a brazenly self-glorifying ethic, to presumably comic effect.  You can view an example here (note the comments): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ib4hN9TUcH0 

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