100 Yards is a purely subjective measure of success

A while back Brooks wrote a much-derided column on lost stoicism of our noble forbears – compared to the epidemic of self-celebration that afflicts us now – which Jim echoed here to further derision. I tend to resist Brooksian generalities as sociology, though I enjoy them as provocation. (I usually agree with them even if I doubt they’re actually true, if you know what I mean.)

But one small moment in this weekend’s college football left me, in a Brooksian sort of way, wondering about the young people today. (Switching, herewith, to the sports present tense.)In the third quarter of the Alabama Florida-Arkansas game, Arkansas receiver Greg Childs catches a pass and heads towards the goal line, fighting off Alabama tacklers. He sheds what looked like a final tackler inside the five yard line but as he reaches the goal line an Alabama defender flies in from his right and punches the ball free. Though replays seem to show Childs losing the ball before the goal line, the touchdown call is upheld on review. (There was no goal-line camera to offer decisive rebuttal.) But the remarkable thing the replay shows is the reason the final defender is able to knock the ball loose. In basically the next step after slipping the last tackle, Childs, who has been carrying the ball in his left hand, away from the approaching defenders, begins switching it to his right hand. It is while he’s switching it that the ball is knocked loose. It is because he is switching hands that the ball is so easy to knock loose. (The announcers, oddly, were mute on this point, and praised Childs for scrambling to recover his own fumble in the end zone.) Why is he switching hands so soon, while his would-be tackler is still falling at his heels, before he has even crossed the goal line, bringing it towards the defender approaching him from his right? There is no comprehensible football reason for the switch. The only plausible reason to switch hands in that spot is to put the ball in his natural hand, so he can raise it over his head in celebration and self-display. Indeed, the replay shows him switching it to his hand and not to the inner part of his lower arm, in the manner of ball-carrying. But why start celebrating so soon? The distinction between scoring and celebrating is not even a distinction. The two overlap. The celebrating starts not after the touchdown, but as soon as the touchdown seems inevitable. Despite the perverse football consequences – a goal-line fumble or near-fumble, almost a lost touchdown – it is actually impressive how quickly Childs’s mind passes from one consideration to the next. How could he have the presence of mind to start celebrating so perversely early, in virtually the same motion as breaking that last tackle? I can only guess that it was a reflex, deep-seated, stitched into his mental archetype of a notable play: One throws off a flare of performative excess as soon as is humanly possible.

This is why the Forty-Niners’ Dre Bly’s gruesome faux pas the previous week – in which he began a showy head-grabbing TD celebration after an interception, despite being inside his own thirty yard line, and was cruelly stripped of the ball a few strides later – left me feeling sympathy over his humiliation rather than, say disgust or outrage at his poor and perverse sportsmanship. It was as if, the moment he saw a wide sweeping view of the end zone ahead of him, with no visible obstacles, the whole mental celebration-touchdown mechanism went into action involuntarily, in the heat of the moment, as it were. But then the play’s concrete elements – that he wasn’t that far ahead of his would-be tacklers, that he’s not any faster than they are, especially when high-stepping and preening, that he still had almost seventy-five yards to run – interrupted this premature launch into a pure realm of personal semiotics, and his glory became shame. I think he truly couldn’t help himself. I sympathize, as I said. I have a few tics that get the better of my inhibitions from time to time. (By which I mean that Dre Bly certainly intended to celebrate on the occasion of a touchdown, and probably conspicuously before the touchdown, but not seventy-five yards before the touchdown. That small mis-cognition, in ordering the thought of a touchdown before the inevitability (much less the reality) of one, was the short circuit I allude to above. Adrenaline does funny things.)

But then why should this impulse be so deep-seated in the first place, especially with all the cautionary examples out there of early-celebration disasters, from Leon Lett (Superbowl goal-line celebration fumble) to DeSean Jackson (arrogant premature goal-line ball-drop)? Coaches are surely warning and threatening players about showboating at its more grotesque and game-endangering extremes. The impulse, then, must be very powerful. (I advance this inference speculatively, of course, and not from the foundation of peer-reviewed social science that is the norm for random blog posts.) Celebrating before the touchdown has been scored, it seems to me, expresses a rather straightforward desire to claim a degree of public recognition in excess of the achievements you’re supposed to be recognized for, in the context, to insist that you are, in fact, larger than the game, or, at least, cannot in your singularity be reduced to its functions. When you celebrate preeningly in the end-zone after a touchdown you are declaring the older norms of decorum and stoicism in celebration to be inadequate to the public needs of your excellent self. But when you celebrate preeningly before the play is even over, you are making the bolder statement that the game is not necessarily your reason for being there at all, that maybe it’s the other way around.