When I was eight years old, I watched my recreation league soccer coach bench a teammate for scoring a goal and jeering the keeper. “Put yourself in her shoes,” we were told. “You wouldn’t want anyone making fun of you, so don’t make fun of them.”
Call me crazy, but 13 years later I still think athletes and coaches everywhere could stand to learn a thing or two from my childhood. Sure, we probably don’t have to worry too much about hurting a professional athlete’s feelings. But taunting and excessive celebration at any level is still childish and unprofessional — this weekend’s misadventures in college football proved that much.
Johnny Manziel hardly needed any more media attention entering No. 7 Texas A&M’s season-opener against Rice: the reigning Heisman Trophy-winner was already a hot topic following his highly-scrutinized behavior over the summer and a recent autograph-selling scandal for which he earned a first-half suspension in Saturday’s game.
Once the polarizing sophomore quarterback entered the game, he spent half his time throwing passes for touchdowns and the other half celebrating them. Manziel is only 20 years old, but his antics were straight out of elementary school.
Yes, “Johnny Football” is a great quarterback — that fact is undeniable. Yet no amount of skill justifies his obnoxious behavior, and the referees rightly punished him with an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. Even more importantly, coach Kevin Sumlin threw the star into timeout — that is, the bench. Manziel should consider himself lucky, though. College coaching legend Lou Holtz, incensed by the ordeal, stated that he would have “grabbed him by the throat.”
Of course, this weekend also demonstrated that excessive celebration could damage players physically as easily as their reputation. No. 11 Georgia lost to No. 4 Clemson in a highly-contested season opener, but the Dawgs’ season took another early hit with the loss of junior receiver Malcolm Mitchell, who tore his ACL after landing awkwardly from a celebratory leap after Georgia scored the first touchdown of the game.
Mitchell caught eight touchdowns over the past two seasons, so the phrase “act like you’ve been there before” seems especially relevant right about now. Mitchell will miss the rest of the 2013 season after celebrating a touchdown that he didn’t even score — teammate Todd Gurley did the honors. I bet a simple high-five sounds pretty good right now, huh?
Manziel and Mitchell are hardly the only perpetrators of such moronic crimes. Professional sports are rife with athletes who are abnormally talented, but also abnormally arrogant and unprofessional. Just take Bryce Harper, Terrell Owens or Chad Johnson — this reporter refused to acknowledge “Ochocinco” as a real last name before the troubled receiver thankfully went back to “Johnson.” This new breed of in-your-face athletes are the reason for the unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and the technical foul, punishments that wouldn’t even be necessary if players were committed to acting like respectable human beings.
Fortunately, for all the showboating athletes in sports, there are still plenty of modest ones too: “The Admiral” David Robinson, Peyton Manning and Kevin Durant among them. And of course, Derek Jeter, surely one of the greatest baseball players of his time, is also a superior example of a humble, well-behaved star — if Manziel is stuck in timeout, Jeter is the hall monitor.
Now, I don’t meant to condemn all celebration here. Winning is exciting at any level, and no one should be deprived of that joy. But the line needs to be drawn — thickly. Not everyone can win the PGA Championship and be satisfied with a fist pump — you’re an odd one, Jason Dufner. If your team just won a nail-biter in extra innings to advance to the playoffs and you want to dance around on the field, knock yourself out. Just watch out or you could see yourself becoming one of the most controversial athletes in the country, or even finding yourself on the disabled list — better luck next time, Malcolm.