Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Dance Like Everyone Is Looking: An Excessive Celebration Of Excessive Celebration.

There was one hell of a grumpy-pants rant up on Grantland this morning. Normally, I enjoy Jenny Johnson's writing; she's clever and snarky and an entertaining read. But her tirade about endzone dances came off like the old guy in a bathrobe yelling "get off my lawn!" It was cranky and obstinate and a representation of exactly what people mean when they (qausi) jokingly refer to the NFL as the No Fun League.

You can click the link above if you want to read it in full, but if you're disinclined or busy or what have you, here's her essential point: scoring points and making good plays in sports is a job. A job that athletes are paid very handsomely to do. They should not engage in obnoxious, self-aggrandizing celebrations purely because they did that job well.

Here's the part that really yanked my chain, because it is condescending moralizing of the most irksome variety:

"But then there's those players who emerge from the locker room wearing a red crushed velvet suit (I actually saw this), talking loudly and trying to get anyone within an earshot's attention. They want to be noticed, they are desperate for it. But why? Why can't people quietly do their jobs? Why make a spectacle of yourself?"

Well, Jenny, allow me to answer that question for you. Athletes dance in endzones and wear outrageous outfits and legally change their names to goofy things and everything else that bugs you for a few simple reasons.

First, because reputation equals money. The bigger a "name" someone can make for themselves, the more recognition they gain among fans. Since front offices are more likely to shell out truckloads of cash to players with high name-recognition who will put more butts in the seats or in front of the TV, it is in the players' best interest to be as recognized as possible. Obviously, this doesn't hold true for crimes, morally questionable behavior, and the like, but actions that generate considerable attention while being essentially harmless are great ways to get a few extra bucks on that next contract.

If you say that's ridiculous and they don't need any more money than they make already, I suppose that's sort of a valid point, but we live in a capitalist society and it is their right to pursue every available financial gain. Also, I believe that given how much the owners make off these athletes, especially in the NFL, that many of them are considerably underpaid for their services.

The second reason is that it is human nature to seek attention and praise when we do something well. Furthermore, we want to share our pride and happiness in those accomplishments; we want to celebrate. If you ask out someone you're heavily attracted to and they say yes, don't tell me you don't skip down the sidewalk and air-high-five the whole beautiful world when that happens. Don't tell me you don't strut a little when you write a great article or produce a great segment. It's partly wanting recognition for the job, but partly just the thrill and pleasure of having done it well, right? We all do it, because as human beings, we're just plain wired that way. If you claim that's not the case, Jenny Johnson, then you're a lying liar who lies. My point is this: sure, celebrations in sports have an exhibitionist tilt to them, but they're also pure distillations of joy when something cool happens.

And here's the third and most important point I want to get to. You say that a great play is just doing the job, and there's no need to so crassly and brazenly call attention to it. You know what I say to that? I say calling attention to it is a critical part of the job.

Because the job, in reality, is to entertain us. That's what athletes do. Speed and skill and dexterity and grace, playing the game smartly and well, those are some of the mechanisms by which players provide that entertainment. Some of the others include entertaining press conferences and sound bytes, loud and/or hilarious outfits, and of course, swagger-licious celebrations.

The endzone dance, the prance after draining a huge trey, the signature ritual when crossing the plate after a homer, these things don't defile some kind of unwritten code of stoicism and dignity. They make the games more fun. Period.

Put it this way: Jimi Hendrix's job was to play guitar. (Well, some of his job. Hendrix was also a pioneering recording studio wizard and a tremendously underrated songwriter and singer, but that's for another day.) Anyway, sticking with the guitar thing, we can safely say that Jimi did his job better than anyone else on the planet did anything. Maybe ever. But the joy of experiencing his transcendent musicianship was amplified by all the other crazy things he did when he performed. The larger-than-life, campy/sensual gesticulating, playing behind his head or with his teeth, smashing his guitar, lighting his guitar on effing fire!!! None of that stuff was necessary to successfully performing his music, but it made the whole show bigger and cooler and infinitely more memorable.

Personally, and I cannot say this emphatically enough, I really, really f&%$ hate the excessive celebration penalty, and any fines that are doled out to players in a misguided attempt to regulate the "integrity of the game" or whatever the hell Roger Goodell thinks he's trying to do.

You know the Terrel Owens "getcha popcorn ready" photo at the top of this post? I love that photo. That was one of my favorite moments of the 2008 season. Same goes for the midfield--Dallas-star move, the sign-the-ball move, and everything else T.O. ever did in an endzone, because his cockiness and ingenuity in the realm of celebrations were unparalleled. Likewise for everyone else Jenny Johnson mentions as having offended her sensibilities.

Here's the paragraph:

"There are some athletes, past and present, who were/are particularly annoying to watch on/off the field, Chad Johnson (I'm writing "Johnson" instead of "Ochocinco" because I can't bring myself to call him a word that doesn't even mean 85 in Spanish), Terrell Owens, Jim McMahon, Deion Sanders, Joe Namath (remember his fur coats? WTF?) Keyshawn Johnson, Jeremy Shockey fall into this particular category."

The rebuttal, if I may. I was a little young to catch McMahon's prime years, but I'd like to exonerate the rest of that list. Every "Prime Time" dance, spike, and ham-it-up act was fantastic viewing. I loved that stuff. Same goes for Key, and their dynamic, memorable on-field personae likely have a lot to do with them being great on-air mainstays today. Chad Ocho-Johnson rode a bull earlier this year, for crying out loud. He holds up signs and proposes to cheerleaders. You can't possibly tell me that guy isn't entertaining. I think Shockey is great, and as far as Broadway Joe ... I've only got grainy photos to go on, but his coats were outstanding.

Speaking of Broadway, I wish the NFL had elaborate, musical-style choreographed celebrations for big games or rally scores. Or at least grander displays like UGA's team-wide penalty against Florida in 2007. (They still do this in the NBA, as evidenced by the Cavs' "snapshot" routine in the LeBron days.) Unfortunately, instead of limitless possibilities for entertainment, it's a minimum 15-yard penalty and possibly a fine just for doing something cool.

Are endzone celebrations egotistical? You bet. Obnoxious? Of course! But they're also an awful lot of fun. The plays themselves, the events that transpire while the game clock is running provide the drama and context and displays of jaw-dropping athleticism. They are the ebb and flow and larger pulse of the event. The celebrations, when they were aloud without repercussions, were the flip side, the over-the-top theater and spectacle and comic relief. They lent a dynamic that is sorely missed in this more staid (and less enjoyable) iteration of the league. They were exuberant declaration and non-verbal smack talk. They fired up home crowds and agitated fans on the road. I mourn their passing.

I mean all of this within the bounds of reason, obviously. I'm not blanket-condoning any and all potential celebrations. If someone makes a truly lewd or offensive gesture, then there should be consequences. The NFL is a product viewed by many youngsters who, lord knows, don't need any more awfulness or crudity in their lives than the internet and the maudlin, depressing thing known as the modern news cycle already inflict upon them.

(Stevie Johnson's faux pas is an interesting case here. Yes, it was a display of poor taste, but it was also an inspired bit of punking. He probably deserved the fine, I suppose. That said, the crashing-jet pratfall was hilarious.)

Ultimately, I believe that the league was more enjoyable when its players were allowed to ham it up. Celebrating great plays with verve and sass and creativity ought to be encouraged, or at least not condemned. Penalizing a great source of entertainment is idiotic, and it needs to stop.

And if Terrel Owens ever catches a touchdown pass in the NFL again, and I happen to be in the stadium when he does, he's more than welcome to my popcorn.

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