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Why Celebrations Are Good for the NFL

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Chicago Bears v Detroit Lions
Oh no! Football players having fun.
Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

“These guys are paid to play a game.” I have honestly lost track of how many times I have heard that statement made or read it in print. Searching for the phrase “paid to play a game” and “NFL” together brought back nearly 4 million results, but to be honest I probably have not read all of those links. It just feels that way sometimes. Still, this is what was on my mind when I learned that the NFL was—in a moment of amazing lucidity—considering allowing players to have more fun while playing that game.

Celebrations might be a little more real. A little less regulated. This is a good thing. To explain why, I want to address the two most commonly invoked arguments against celebrations in football and then explain the three reasons I am personally in favor of celebrations. Because I do not want to call anyone out, exactly, I will not link to or directly quote the arguments I am countering. If anyone feels this is setting up a strawman, however, I can assure you that these arguments are made. If you’re honest, you know who makes them and how often you see them.

Complaint I: Just Do Your Job

The argument is made that these guys are celebrating doing their job. This contention can be summarized as follows: “They are paid large sums of money to do a thing, and they do that thing. Why is this worthy of celebration?” Two answers come to mind.

First, doing your job well is a cause for celebration. More people should celebrate. If I gave most people a choice between a work environment that celebrated their successes or one that took them for granted, my guess is that people would prefer the environment that embraced their successes. There is an entire field of study called work engagement, and guess what? A positive environment matters.

Second, there are also professional athletes being paid large sums of money to stop them from doing their job. This is, after all, why it’s a contest in the first place. Overcoming any sort of challenge can be cause for celebration. I had a coworker one time who pumped a fist every time the copy machine worked because of how rare of an occasion that seemed to be. Overcoming challenges naturally makes people happy. Celebration makes sense.

Complaint II: Act Professional/Be Classy

I have to admit that this answer has a native appeal to me. One way this argument is phrased is this: “Act like you’ve been there before.” Players should not have overly indulgent celebrations because in doing so they are showing less class or professionalism than the players who do adhere to such higher standards of sportsmanship. Again, I have two obvious answers.

First, I absolutely and completely agree that it is classier for a player to have an understated response to a moment of success. Few things are more impressive than someone managing a nearly superhuman feat and then acting like it was the least that could be expected. However, here’s the problem—that’s actually only an impressive response when it’s a choice. If the player is simply being subdued because of a rule, then that player isn’t being classy. That player is just following the rules. Imposing a rule that limits celebrations actually takes away from players the chance to be classy, because they no longer choose that show of sportsmanship. It is merely forced on them.

Second, this seems to subject players to a strange and contradictory set of guidelines. According to some, they are supposed to remember that they are grownups playing a kids’ game. According to others, they are supposed to be professional at all times. So, they have to take themselves sort of seriously? They are supposed to have fun but not too much fun? Really?

I admit that there are other reasons to restrict celebrations in football, but those are the two that I hear the most often. With them out of the way, I want to lay out three reasons that I think celebrations are good. Two are general, and one is specific to my fandom.

Contention I: These are dreams becoming real

Don’t think about Jay Cutler throwing his hundredth touchdown (I don’t even know when that would have been, and I refuse to look it up right now). Don’t focus on Peanut Tillman’s 30th forced fumble. Instead, think about October 9th, 2016. Cameron Meredith caught his first NFL touchdown. How many times had he imagined that moment in his life? How often had he feared it would never happen? This kid went from undrafted to doing the thing he had spent years dreaming about. It took him until he was 24, but he did it. How awesome must that have felt? Why can’t he have his moment?

Go to October 20th of that same year. Leonard Floyd was drafted and immediately attacked as a selection for being too skinny. I heard at least two interviewers challenge him for being too small and for asking him how he thought he would handle the NFL. Well, on October 20th he told Bears fans how he would handle it—by sacking Aaron Rodgers, forcing a fumble, and recovering the ball for touchdown. That is basically the biggest “told you so” to his critics imaginable, and he deserves to be able to celebrate his moment.

Very few people get to keep score in life, and these guys do. More than that, they work hard for the chance to make their dreams real. To say “yeah, but I don’t get that kind of moment” just seems petty. Triumph deserves its moment. Does it get old to see some veterans milk it? Yeah. It does. It’s still worth it when the up-and-comers get their moment.

Contention II: Celebration invites us in

This next one is tricky, because it deals with a concept most people don’t use all the time, even though they understand it—identification. Essentially, people tend to like others better when they can see something of themselves in those others. When we identify with people, we form a bond with them. This is, honestly, the heart of shows like Hard Knocks.

To some extent, this might be why some people object to celebrations (“I don’t get to celebrate doing my job, so I don’t want the NFL players to do it, either”), but this basically closes off the experience to one whole group of people (those who do get to celebrate/like to celebrate) on behalf of another group. The NFL has a better chance of getting a larger audience to identify with the experience of the players by letting those players show a greater range of emotions. Again, it’s a game.

Contention III: Unequal Enforcement

This last one is the “fandom specific” argument I mentioned earlier. I have heard that the rationale for penalizing certain celebrations is that they are unsafe. I have also heard that another rationalization is that they delay the game. On the other hand, the Bears fan in my has to point something out—this is transparent nonsense, and the league proves it by showing favoritism time and again.

How is it that these rules don’t apply in Wisconsin?

The Lambeau Leap dates to 1993, making it younger than every player mentioned by name in this article to this point. It is not some amazing tradition of football dating back to the founding of the league. However, when Ezekiel Elliott does something similar involving a kettle, and arguably less risk to others, he’s flagged.

See, the hypocrisy surrounding the Lambeau Leap is just an encapsulation of the entire goofiness surrounding regulating celebrations, anyway. So long as the line between “excessive” and “appropriate” celebrations is being made by people, those people are going to get it wrong. Favoritism is going to be shown to one style or type of celebration. It’s much better if instead of erring on the side of a penalty, the league errs on the side of letting human beings have fun playing a game.

My conclusion is simple: let these guys celebrate. If the other guys don’t like it, they can settle it on the field. Letting players act like excited guys playing a game just makes sense. It is, after all, the truth.