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In Defense Of Stevie Johnson And Ridiculous TD Celebrations

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Bills wide receiver Stevie Johnson celebrated a touchdown on Sunday with a dance mocking Plaxico Burress, and it sparked the latest in a long line of controversies surrounding NFL players in the endzone. But why?

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Everyone can agree the NFL has a problem surrounding touchdown celebrations, the only question is what the problem is. Is it the players celebrating, or the refs (and the league) punishing them?

We could have this debate every single week, of course. We're only mentioning it today for two reasons. First because Stevie Johnson unleashed one of the most awesomely ridiculous celebrations of the season on Sunday. He scored a touchdown and earned a 15-yard penalty for mocking Plaxico Burress' shooting while standing a mere 75 yards away from Plaxico Burress, on the three-year anniversary of said shooting.

Johnson apologized afterward, but I thought the move was hilarious. Burress isn't dead, nobody was hurt, and really, if you can't make fun of an opponent shooting himself in the leg at a club, then what CAN you ridicule?

Anyway, regardless of how you saw Stevie Johnson's dance Sunday, the outcry's been immediate and deafening, and the debate over TD celebrations has been renewed all over again.

"I'd be so upset," ESPN's Merrill Hoge said on Monday, "I'd walk in and cut him today."

But there was no critic louder than Bob Costas, who scolded Johnson and other serial celebrators on National TV Sunday night. "Hey, knuckleheads," he began, "Is it too much to ask that you confine your buffoonery to situations that don't directly damage your team?"

He's talking about celebration penalties there. As he continued, Costas decided it's useless to try to reason with players like Johnson--"that train has already gone so far down the wrong track, there's probably no turning back"--and instead directed his judgment toward the adults who should know better. The coaches.

"Where are the coaches in all this? Guys are routinely benched or called out for blown assignments. When is a coach going to make an overdue statement and sit a guy down on the grounds of pure selfishness and unprofessionalism detrimental to his team?"

Of course he takes his plea to the coaches. No sport venerates coaches like football, a game exists that as a testament to conformity and authority. As Vince Lombardi once said, "Football is a great deal like life in that it teaches that work, sacrifice, perseverance, competitive drive, selflessness and respect for authority." That may as well be the unofficial ethos for the NFL, which tells us football isn't just like life, it's something like a better way to live.

But what if it's just a game? The best thing I've seen written about TD celebrations came just last week, actually. Over at Deadspin, Tommy Craggs introduces us to the first man who dared dance in the endzone, Elmo Jones Wright at the University of Houston, and later in the NFL.

...Houston opened the 1969 season in Gainesville against Florida. At one point, Elmo caught a ball in front of Florida's All-American defensive back, Steve Tannen. "He dove at my feet, and I high-stepped to get away from him, and when I turned upfield, no one else was near me. I kept high-stepping going all the way to the end zone, and I went I got into the end zone, people were booing me." He started high-stepping a little faster, and people kept booing—"If it wasn't for the booing, I probably wouldn't have accelerated"—and a routine was born.

"It was the Civil Rights era," Elmo said. "Houston was playing a lot of teams in the South. You had to have some courage to be dancing in the end zone."

... in the Roger Goodell era, pro football is slowly getting sapped of Elmo's spirit, that exuberant mix of Fuck you! and Fuck yes!

Football may have taken on a more profound meaning thanks to ghosts like Lombardi, but to the players it's still a game that thrives on emotion and expression, where savoring the 30-second intersection of "Fuck you!" and "Fuck yes!" is worth 15 yards and then some.

After thousands of hours of practice and film study and workouts ground spontaneity into monotony, that brief time in the endzone is where the game can still be fun.

The NFL's inspired a cult following by marketing itself in Lombardi's terms, not Elmo Wright's, and announcer rants attacking players like Stevie Johnson and DeSean Jackson only embellish the ideals that sport wants to emphasize. That's fine. If Costas had stopped there, then it'd be mundane enough to just ignore. But it was his first few words Sunday night that speak volumes about why people hate TD celebrations, in general.

"We live in a culture that in many ways grows more stupid and graceless by the moment," he began Sunday Night. "Sports both reflects and influences that sorry trend, so on playing fields everywhere, true style is in decline, while mindless exhibitionism abounds."

Okay but wait. What is football if not mindless exhibitionism?

See, this is why touchdown celebrations bother people who make a living covering football. Everyone's problem with celebrations has nothing to do with 15-yard penalties or a culture that's progressively abandoning "professionalism." The problem is that touchdown celebrations are the moments during a football game where the whole spectacle becomes transparent. Where football's not a series of life lessons or a testament to some canon of NFL Films ideals.

It's all just an exhibition, and the whole thing thrives on the emotion of the players putting on the show, not guys like Costas and Hoge and Lombardi. They may hate when someone like Stevie Johnson acts on this principle, but it doesn't matter, because it's not up to them.  

Plaxico Burress, for his part, wasn't offended by Stevie Johnson on Sunday. "It doesn't bother me at all," he said after Sunday's game. As he added, "He's a young player and I like him a lot. I think he's a great young talent and is going to be a great player in this league."

It'll never be commentators' job to decide what qualifies as "professionalism" among professional football players, and it'll always look sorta pathetic when they try. On Sunday night, for instance, Costas cited Giants wide receiver Homer Jones, the man who brought the spike to the NFL.

"It was great," he said sadly. "A simple, elegant punctuation that somehow has devolved into this…" But what Costas doesn't tell you is that Homer Jones invented the spike out of necessity.

From USA Today back in 2009:

Jones says he always wanted to throw the ball in the stands after a TD ... "But (NFL Commissioner Pete) Rozelle changed the rules, and it was a $500 fine if you threw the ball in the grandstand," Jones says. "So when I crossed the goal line, my mind snapped on the reality that, in 1965, $500 was a lot of money. So I threw the ball down, and people liked it."

Since the beginning, there's always been a tension between an NFL that wants to keep individuals from upstaging the system and the players who keep finding new ways to take center stage. And no matter how hard the NFL tries to shape the game as some grand pyramid of Vince Lombardi quotes, there will always be players who refuse to play by the script and enjoy the game on their own terms, one 15-yard penalty at a time.

If those tiny, ridiculous moments in the endzone make it worthwhile for players to endure football's bone-crushing realities everywhere else, then watching them enjoy the stage will always make me smile. The NFL can be profound, but not for the reasons Bob Costas thinks.