WASHINGTON -- When T.J. Peeler from Broad Run High School in northern Virginia crossed the goal line early in the first quarter Friday night in a game against Potomac Falls, he smacked the football twice in his hands, then turned and leaped to meet a teammate with a chest bump.
Peeler, one of the top running backs in the Washington D.C. area who has been recruited to play at Pittsburgh next year, was simply enjoying with a teammate his 63-yard touchdown run, but his celebration quickly drew a penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct -- one of two such calls Peeler would receive in the game for chest bumping after a touchdown. The calls would earn Peeler a permanent place on the bench for the remainder of the contest, and perhaps for the Spartans' next game -- a Virginia AA Region II semifinal on Nov. 20.
Peeler's chest-bump penalties are the most recent example of a crackdown on excessive touchdown celebrations that has moved from the National Football League to college football and now to Friday night football games at high schools across the country.
In the Washington area this fall, a receiver from 13th-ranked McNamara was flagged for pointing to the sky after a touchdown, and a Gwynn Park defender was penalized for pointing up at the sky after intercepting a pass. The player, who said after the game that the gesture was a tribute to his deceased grandfather, nonetheless cost his team 15 yards.
"What's happening is in the old days, there was a certain level of celebration that was allowed. Now it's basically no celebration," said Bill McGregor, who is in his 28th year as head coach at DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, Md.
There are some who view the crackdown as necessary -- ridding the high school game of the scripted Sharpie-in-the-sock, cell-phone-in-the-goalpost-padding type of touchdown celebrations that first appeared in the NFL a few years ago. Yet, just as the cleanup of those routines earned the NFL a new nickname -- the No Fun League -- so too has the recent emphasis on toning down player celebrations in high school left many coaches, players and spectators asking: How far can you go before you take the joy out of the sport?
"It's kids having fun," said Mike Burnett, head coach at Broad Run, the third-ranked team in the area. "If you can't celebrate your hard work and success, I don't see the point in playing. If we want them to have success and not celebrate, I'm not sure what your point is."
The National Federation of State High School Associations sent a "point of emphasis" memo to athletic directors across the country before the 2009 season reminding them of the need for good sportsmanship in games. It called specific attention to federation rule 9-5-1, which reads, in part: "No player shall act in an unsportsmanlike manner once the officials assume authority for the contest." Examples of inappropriate behavior, it said, included but were not limited to, "Baiting or taunting acts or words or insignia worn which engenders ill will," "Using profanity, insulting or vulgar language or gestures," or "Any delayed, excessive or prolonged act by which a player attempts to focus attention upon himself."
The Maryland and Virginia state high school federations, as well as Washington D.C., play under NFHS guidelines, according to NFHS assistant director Bob Colgate.
The problem, according to several coaches and former coaches, is that the wording of the rule is so broad that the area between the opinion of an official and the intention of an athlete can be quite gray.
"It really has become almost dependent on who the referee is, if he allows it or not," said Bryce Bevill, the head coach at McNamara. "It needs to be a rule or something that is put in place that's concrete that we can all go by because right now, some refs allow it and some don't."
Bevill's 13th-ranked Mustangs were affected by just such a ruling in a recent game against St. Albans, when senior wide receiver Brandon Coleman was flagged for excessive celebration after pointing to the sky following a 27-yard touchdown reception that gave the Mustangs a nine-point lead. The call pushed the extra point attempt back 15 yards, and though McNamara would go on to win the contest on the shoulders of another Coleman touchdown late in the fourth quarter, Bevill questioned the call and what it is supposed to teach the players.
"He just pointed to the sky, I couldn't get upset with him," Bevill said. "But you have to say something to him, so you say 'know where you are, know how they are officiating the game.' The officials were calling a tight game, but it was a big catch, he scored a touchdown. He was not trying to show up anyone, he was just celebrating that he scored a touchdown."
McGregor, who has a career 268-36-3 record with top-ranked DeMatha, said he didn't necessarily disagree with more strict calls regarding celebrations.
"My father was a football official for years in western Pennsylvania and I have always been one to err on the side of officials," he said. "They do it as best as they possibly can. There are certain standards that should be upheld and met as an official, as a coach and as a player. If the rule says you can't have it, you can't do it. It's that simple. There are a lot of things maybe you want to do, but you just can't do it and that's the way it is."
McGregor also said that during his nearly three decades as a head coach at DeMatha there has become more of a disconnect between the "old-school" manner of thinking and a younger generation that has grown up watching the over-the-top celebrations of NFL players such as wide receivers Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco.
"It's harder because the reinforcement isn't there at the highest level," McGregor said. "Now as the high school coach you become the bad guy and all you're trying to do is teach the kids the proper way to do things, and it also puts the officials in a tough situation because, Where is the gray area? What's too excessive?"
Still, McGregor said he has a lesson he emphasizes at least three times a week to his team, including before every game: "To the officials it's yes sir, no sir and that's what it should be, and the other thing is this: Act like you've been there before. If you score a touchdown you give the ball to the official and get to the bench. I don't think you need to high five or chest bump or some of those things."
Broad Run is awaiting a decision regarding its appeal of Peeler's penalties. A ruling is expected on Wednesday, according to Dennis Hall, commissioner of the Northern Virginia Football Officials Association.
"We don't want to throw people out of games," said Hall, who said he has watched video of the penalties against Peeler upward of 20 times. "You get to (the players) and say 'don't do this.' I'm getting all those details now and we're going to do what's right. I support my officials, but if it isn't 100 percent right, we'll get it right."