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High School Unsportsmanlike Conduct Penalty: Excessive or Justified?

We have seen yet another costly celebration -- this time in high school (AP Photo/Boston Herald, Ted Fitzgerald)

In today’s era of sports where professional athletes are played tens of millions every year and are worshipped by fans all over the world, it is not a surprise that many athletes behave like prima donnas.

And with these prima donna players has come the rise of the post play celebrations, and the rise of penalties for these plays.

In the NFL unsportsmanlike conduct penalties have generally been obvious calls: receivers like Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco (back when he actually scored touchdowns) using the ball as a prop after scoring a touchdown.

However, two plays in the non-professional levels of football have brought the nature and definition of unsportsmanlike conduct penalties into question.

LSU Punter Brad Wing

On Oct. 8 in a game between LSU and Florida, LSU punter Brad Wing ran a fake punt 52 yards for a touchdown. However about 10 yards before reaching the end zone, Wing turned toward the field and spread his arms (51 seconds) or a moment.

This was deemed unsportsmanlike by the refs and the touchdown was called back and LSU was penalized 15 yards.

Looking at the play, Wing’s “celebration” was so quick it seemed that calling a penalty was a bit unnecessary. However his gesture did appear to be directed to players on the other team and because LSU was already winning 14-0, and would go on to win the game easily, no one took much offense to it.

Two months later a similar situation would draw significantly more controversy.

Cathedral vs Blue Hills

On Dec. 3, Cathedral High took on Blue Hills Regional Technical School for the MIAA division 4A Super Bowl. Blue Hills jumped out to a 16-0 lead in the first half, but Cathedral fought back to get the ball down 16-14 late in the fourth quarter. Then, at his own 44-yard line, quarterback Matt Owens took it himself 56 yards to the end zone for what should’ve been the game winning play.

However, just after crossing the 25-yard line, Owens raised his left first in celebration. This gesture was deemed unsportsmanlike, and the play was called back. Several plays later Owens threw an interception, and Blue Hills walked away state champions.

Mayor Thomas Menino Reaction

One of the first people to offer their input on the play was Massachusetts mayor Thomas Menino who ripped the refs saying:

“I think sometimes these rules are written by frustrated athletes. They never participated in a sport, and they don’t know what it is to be excited. You play in a football game, you run for a touchdown, and you do something special.”

Menino’s reaction was shared by many: that this was a huge moment for Owens and his gesture was more out of genuine excitement than disrespect. But what made this different was that Owens raised his hand at the 23-yard line rather than right before crossing the goal line, and this could have been what made the play disrespectful in the eyes of the refs.

Definition of the Rule

The NFL has much different rules on what is unsportsmanlike conduct than high school: in the NFL players are allowed to do just about anything before they reach the end zone as you can see from this Desean Jackson punt return last year, on which no flag was thrown.

The high school rule on Unsportsmanlike Conduct Fouls (RULE 9. SECTION 2) states that:

“No player, substitute, coach or other person subject to the rules shall use abusive, threatening or obscene language or gestures, or engage in such acts that provoke ill will or are demeaning to an opponent, to game officials or to the image of the game.”

It then goes into seven specific examples of actions that would be considered unsportsmanlike penalties. The closest one to describing what Owens did was example (a) which describes pointing a finger, hand or ball at an opponent.

But Owens is clearly not making a gesture to any opposing player, so even this part of the rule is not applicable.

However the rule also states that a penalty will be called for anything including BUT NOT LIMITED TO these seven gestures.

Now we get to the heart of the problem. How is a high school athlete supposed to know what is a penalty if it is not specified in the rules. Is raising a fist to the sky, a universal sign of victory, now a penalty?

Or is it because he did so well before he crossed the goal line? If so, exactly how close do you have to be to the goal line to raise a finger without drawing a penalty?

To me it seems that the penalty was called because Owens was at the 23-yard line and not because of the actual gesture. While I could understand this being a penalty if what Owens did was deemed a penalty in the rules.

But the fact that it was not tells me that the referees were trying to set a precedent and send a message with this call, and because of the situation they did it in denying a player and team a championship, I feel is wrong.

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