Stop trying to police player decorum in sports. It doesn't work | Opinion

Matt Trowbridge
Rockford Register Star
Cassius Marsh celebrates a sack against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Cassius Marsh took five steps toward the Pittsburgh Steelers' sideline after making a critical fourth-quarter sack on Monday night, then the Bears linebacker peeled back toward his own sideline after he got within a few feet of a Pittsburgh player.

Referee Tony Corrente threw a flag for taunting, giving the Steelers a first down and keeping alive a drive that led to a field goal in a 29-27 win over the Chicago Bears. The next day, the NFL defended the call.

Most NFL fans had never seen anything like it.

But Illinois High School Association basketball fans had.

Matt Trowbridge

Eight years ago, Harrisburg beat South Holland Seton Academy — a Catholic school that no longer exists — 50-44 in the Class 2A state title game. Seton had a comfortable lead in that game until its star was ejected late in the second quarter. He took one step toward a Harrisburg player who had just fouled him before veering off when he was a step away, similar to Marsh. He was immediately called for a technical foul, then got ejected when he went to complain and his hands brushed the referee.

Tensions grew so hot that the IHSA threatened to cancel the game at halftime and Seton Academy walked off the floor after the game and refused to accept its second place trophy. The IHSA then vowed Seton would never get its trophy.

South Holland Seton Academy coach Brandon Thomas complains after his player is ejected from the game as Harrisburg defeats Seton 50-44 to claim the IHSA Class 2A title game in 2013 at the Peoria Civic Center in Peoria.

All because refs, from high schools to colleges to the pros, have turned into the decorum police. It hasn’t worked. The’ve been fighting a losing battle for 30 years, trying to make players behave the way they think is in the most sportsmanlike manner and often creating problems, not solving them.

Even those who agree with the idea — and most NFL coaches were publicly onboard with making taunting a “point of emphasis” this offseason — know how hard it is to enforce.

“Taunting is a huge problem,” said former high school football coach Dan Appino, who won two state titles at Rockford Boylan and led Rockford Auburn to its only two NIC-10 titles in the last 30 years. “Kids grow up now thinking trash talk is part of the game. I battled that issue throughout my coaching career. Stoicism is disparaged as old school.

“Unfortunately, officials have a hard time discriminating between joyous celebrations and genuine taunting."

Still, Appino always encouraged his players to celebrate with a teammate rather than celebrate standing over an opponent. "Humiliation," he said, "should not be the effect of such celebrations."

That, in effect, is the stance of the IHSA, NFL and NCAA. They all know what they want. But it's not easy to enforce. IHSA associate executive director Kurt Gibson, who says he remembers that Harrisburg-Seton Academy game "like it was yesterday," says it is tough to differentiate between celebrating and taunting. But he also said the IHSA won't stop trying.

"We are worried about unsporting behavior," Gibson said. "We have seen a rise among players, among fans, among coaches. Maybe it's a trickle down from what we're seeing in the pros or a change in society, but we are concerned.

"Most coaches do a great job, with young people and professional athletes alike, of telling them, 'don't focus on yourself, make it about the team.' But some athletes let the situations get to them and leave officials with no other choice but to penalize, and sometimes in a severe way."

Severe? Or overkill?

Iowa State Cyclones wide receiver Xavier Hutchinson (8) catches a pass for a touchdown during the first half of the game against Kansas at Jack Trice Stadium in Ames, Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021.

Iowa State lost a touchdown earlier this season on a 15-yard taunting penalty after the receiver merely put his two hands in front of him shortly before crossing the goal line. That also happened to Belvidere North a decade ago when Austin Smaha pointed his left index finger toward the stands on a 90-yard kickoff return on a win over cross-town Belvidere.

Even the opposing coach thought that was ridiculous.

"I have no problem with that at all," said former Belvidere coach Matt Weckler, who now coaches DeKalb. "He is a good player. He made a good play. It's a rivalry game. At Belvidere, the fans are all on one side. He could have even been pointing to his fans. To me, that's all part of the game and having success."

Giants wide receiver Homer Jones invented the spike in 1965. People were confused. "He has a funny habit of throwing the ball down when he crosses the goal line," wrote the Dallas Morning News.

A decade later, spiking the ball to celebrate wasn't enough for the NFL's top kick returner. Billy "White Shoes" Johnson popularized the end zone dance 45 years ago. The Bengals Ickey Woods then brought the "Ickey Shuffle" to the sideline in 1988.

But even before Ickey Woods, the NFL had begun cracking down. The league response to Washington receivers group celebrations as the "Fun Bunch" led to a 1984 rule that outlawed "any prolonged, excessive, premeditated celebration by individual players or groups of players." Props were banned in 2006.

In 2017, the NFL finally relented — a little — on its celebration crackdowns, so now highlight shows are full of teams bowling and doing the electric slide, etc., in the end zone.

And the sports world hasn't ended. Or broken into chaos.

But the decorum fight wages on. A fight that, to me, began in earnest with the Fab Five. No team ever sparked more outrage from old school harrumphers — or excited the young generations — more than the five freshman starters from Michigan in 1991 who wore extra-long shorts and embraced hip-hop.

"We were the bad guys," guard Jalen Rose once told the New York Daily News.

Only to people who hate the idea of sports turning into performance art.

The Fab Five, from front to back: Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King, Ray Jackson and Chris Webber

Sports are more fun — both to play and to watch — when athletes emote. Who can ever forget the Tiger Woods or Jimmy Connors fist pump?

Most celebrations — and no taunts — are as pure as that, but they are still emotions. And who do they hurt? We are supposed to be the country that embraces free speech, even speech we don't like. We lose more by trying to stifle speech we don't like than we gain by stopping those words.

That is true in sports as well as in life.

"I try to teach our kids to play with emotion," said Weckler, who has led DeKalb to the playoffs seven times after the Barbs reached the postseason only twice in the previous 30 years. "To have someone turn it off, that takes away from the game. In practice, we will show the kids how to appropriately celebrate, high fives, low fives, fist bumps. As long as we are celebrating with our teammates and our fans.

"I totally agree that how you react to situations is very important. Act like you have been there before. But at the same time, some of these kids haven't been there before. And some teams haven't been there before. And the reason they are there is they play with emotion."

Local coaches all seem to want their team to play with emotion. But also in an IHSA-approved manner.

"We emphasize not to put ourselves in the position of being at the mercy of an official's judgment," said Rockford East boys basketball coach Roy Sackmaster, who has led the E-Rabs to two of the last three NIC-10 titles. "Especially given that in one game, or several games for that matter, a certain behavior may never be addressed by an official but that same behavior the next game could be penalized and change the scope of the game."

That is the entire crux of the matter. It is easier to call balls and strikes, touchdowns and first downs, fouls and 3-pointers than it is to define proper etiquette. Sports should leave that to Miss Manners.

Matt Trowbridge:; @matttrowbridge