Football fans love to recite this motto when they see a player yell, dance or jump for joy after scoring a touchdown. Crossing the goal line and calmly handing the ball to the official is deemed "professional," whereas celebrating is supposedly something else. It's not entirely clear what it is, but apparently it's pretty bad.
The NCAA had so-called professional touchdown celebrations in mind last offseason when it instituted a new excessive celebration penalty. Instead of punishing a scoring team with yardage on the extra point or ensuing kickoff, officials can now call the play dead at the moment the violation occurs. If the player high-steps five yards into the end zone, a 15-yard penalty can be assessed and the points are taken off the board.
The idea, in theory, sounds nice. Limiting taunting will add class to the games, potentially, and keep the feelings of the players on the losing side from being hurt. The rule has fallen apart in practice, however, with even some of the oldest of old-school coaches advocating its early demise.
The problem is the inconsistency of the rule's enforcement. One official's excessive celebration is another man's innocent expression of excitement.
LSU's Brad Wing was the first and most high-profile victim of the new rule. The Australian-born punter scored his first collegiate touchdown on a fake punt Oct. 8 against Florida, an understandably emotional moment for a guy whose duties typically aren't all that exciting: catch, punt, repeat.
Right before crossing the goal line, though, Wing lifted his arms in a move that was virtually imperceptible in real time. It was enough for the officials to nix the TD and move the ball back to the 25-yard line. In a revealing moment that showed exactly what many big-name coaches think of the new rule, Tigers coach Les Miles wasn't outwardly mad at his punter. His reaction was more like mild amusement.
Two more plays Saturday illustrated the fickleness of the rule.
After an electrifying 92-yard kickoff return to Purdue's 3-yard line, Penn State's Chaz Powell flung the the ball in the air as the Beaver Stadium crowd went crazy. The guys in stripes didn't like having to jog a few extra yards to pick up the ball, though, and tossed a flag. The Nittany Lions had to settle for a field goal in a game then eventually won, 23-18.
Less than a three-hour drive away at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Utah defensive end Derrick Shelby had no such trouble against Pitt. Shelby capped off a two-sack performance with an interception in the waning moments, and somersaulted into the end zone with 89 seconds left in the 26-14 Utes victory. This officiating crew decided the celebration occurred after the score, and penalized Utah 15 yards on the kickoff.
This uncertainty of what is and is not a penalty — and when such penalties really occur — makes the rule a senseless joke. It's impossible to tell a player to "be smart" when there's no guideline for what "smart" is. In 52 games on Saturday, there likely would have been 52 different applications of the excessive celebration rule.
The alternative is to tell the players to play with no passion, to force them to rein in the adrenaline necessary to play a physical, punishing game. It would mean the surgical removal of fun for the players and deprive fans of the look of pure ecstasy on a kid's face when he scores the go-ahead touchdown in the biggest game of his life in front of 100,000 screaming fans.
That alternative isn't classy, it's boring. Learning to win with grace is a valuable life lesson that the rule seeks to teach, but it's also valuable to learn to get beat down, shake it off and come back for the next play. Let the kids play. They're the ones we're all here to watch.