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The NFL, Touchdown Celebrations, and the Need to Embrace Player Personality

As the NFL continues to tighten its grip on player celebrations, one must wonder if the league is sacrificing fun and personality in the name of “sportsmanship”

DK Metcalf and Tyreek Hill are two of the most exciting wide receiver talents in today’s NFL. Both players are the featured offensive weapons on their respective teams and can break open a game at any moment. But this week, there has been a focus on them once they get into the end zone. Earlier this season Hill was fined for performing a backflip and filming it after taking a cameraman's phone, which resulted in the cameraman being suspended from his job. Metcalf, in order to avoid similar fines among other reasons, has amazingly learned sign language to talk trash when he makes a big play. 

These two instances color the concepts of sportsmanship and individuality in the NFL, and why the two are always at odds with one another. The NFL is always making adjustments to its rules and regulations, a dynamic that fans are all too familiar with. The touchdown celebration, however, has become increasingly distilled as time has gone on in the spirit of better sportsmanship and limiting taunting. While this has been happening, it can be argued that the league has gone a step too far in taking the joy out of scoring touchdowns in the game. 

The No Fun League 

Whenever the league fines a player for excessive celebration, many people often joke that the NFL stands for “No Fun League” instead of the National Football League. This comment is not new either, having been used dating all the way back to 1991. There was a time when touchdown celebrations were a bit of a competition between running backs and wide receivers. Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens famously would attempt to come up with creative ways to celebrate scoring points for their teams. Saints wide receiver Joe Horn introduced the concept of props to the festivities, with the inclusion of a cell phone after scoring a touchdown in 2003

These instances created memorable moments. Many fans fondly remember the Horn celebration, Owens eating popcorn in Dallas, and others. Celebrations have often been looked at by fans as one of the highlights of a game. The touchdown spike, for instance, became a part of backyard football games everywhere after its introduction in the 1960s. Celebrating a job well done is something that is inherently culturally relevant to us as Americans. Think about the high fiving or dancing that goes on when a job well done is executed. Celebrating is simply in our nature. 

The NFL at the end of the day, is a league interested in the expansion and adoption of the game. For many years under the direction of commissioner Roger Goodell, the league has been focused on expanding to emerging demographics of the sport. There has been a focus to appeal to families and the next generation. Part of this has been positive, such as focusing on policing head injuries and a focus on offensive football that has led to a more enjoyable product for most fans. But the opposite side of that coin has been that players are encouraged to be more robotic in nature which limits the fun factor that comes from scoring an exciting touchdown. 

The Downside of Uniformity 

There is a documentary that ESPN aired some years ago called “Broke” that takes a look at how professional athletes lose their millions. One of the causes that the film explores is the way that athletes spend money at nightclubs and all the poor decisions that may happen in that venue. A term coined in this part of the film is “helmet syndrome”. In essence, because football players aren’t as easily recognized as their basketball, baseball, and soccer counterparts they tend to spend lavish amounts of money to get attention. 

This idea of football players being unrecognized could explain an added desire for players to have celebrations for touchdowns, first downs, and sacks. Because at the very least, a dedicated celebration could be an added point of recognition aside from their jersey number. In a world where athletes are establishing brands and marketing themselves outside of the game, preserving a sense of personality on the field is incredibly important. Fans these days gravitate towards players more than teams, so it is more likely that a young fan will be a Tyreek Hill fan before they are a fan of the Miami Dolphins. Therefore, allowing these players to show their personalities becomes good business. 

The NFL, forever worried about its image, does not want to cause too much alienation within its fan base. Celebrations have a way of being polarizing in that way, so the league's stance has a clear origin. There is a substantial subset of vocal NFL fans that have issues with players coloring outside of the lines of their expectations of a football player. We saw this with players advocating for social justice causes and fans reacting negatively to it. The NFL does not want to alienate its fan base so their push toward a more filtered and tamed player may be the way forward that the league sees at this moment. 

The Importance of Character 

In its push to make the game more palatable for everyone, the NFL has missed the point. We currently live in the age of the viral video. There are short clips everywhere from TikTok to YouTube. In this climate, an imaginative touchdown celebration would drive more attention to the player that did it in addition to driving more fans to the NFLs content machine. Videos of Tyreek Hill's backflip video have already had thousands of likes and views on TikTok, there is an appetite for imaginative celebrations in addition to remarkable plays. The beauty of the NFL and the game of American football is that everything happens in under 10 second increments, making it ideal for viral short form video content. And yet the NFL continues to shy away from embracing celebrations that could catch fire on social media. 

There is of course a fine line between a good natured celebration and taunting. What none of us want is actions that lead to fights on the field. But that doesn’t mean that the solution is to completely distill and police the individuality of the players. DK Metcalf using sign language while allowing him to say “standing on business” in the end zone has also led to him being an advocate for ASL adoption in the United States, leading to his sign language teacher being invited to an upcoming Seahawks game against Tennessee. This small instance shows the impact that NFL players can have culturally and celebrations are a part of that treasure trove of personality and positivity. 

Football and sports in general are supposed to be something that brings us joy. Not something robotic and overly politically correct. Penalizing and fining players for being happy about scoring a touchdown dampens the experience of watching the NFL product at the end of the day. We should continue to encourage players to be themselves and express themselves through celebrations in the game. That sort of emotion is what makes football a fun game, and taking away the fun is not what anyone should want.

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