Cool your heels

Here's a piece of advice for Tennessee football players as they're racing unimpeded to the end zone this fall: Watch your step. Literally.

A new interpretation of the unsportsmanlike-conduct rule makes showboating a live-ball foul. For example, a ball-carrier who begins high-stepping as he approaches the goal line will have the score nullified and the ball returned to the spot of the first high step, followed by the imposition of a 15-yard penalty.

Steve Shaw, first-year coordinator of SEC officials, discussed the new interpretation during an interview with Tony Barnhart and Dave Baker aired live on during this week's SEC spring meetings in Destin, Fla.

"That's probably going to be the most visible rule change this year," said Shaw, the successor to Rogers Redding, who was named the NCAA's coordinator of officials in February. "I think the coaches want it because it's going to help them coach up their players not to do these things."

Shaw went on to explain that if an unsportsmanlike act "occurs during the live-ball sequence, the spot of the foul is where that foul will be enforced from."

Previously, a player who punctuated a scoring play by high-stepping the final few steps on his way to the goal line incurred a 15-yard penalty that was assessed on his team's ensuing kickoff. Now that the infraction is considered a live-ball foul, the team loses the six points and all of the yards gained following the infraction, in addition to sustaining a 15-yard penalty.

High-stepping isn't the only action that will get a ball-carrier flagged, of course. Players who somersault into the end zone or dive needlessly across the goal line will be penalized, as well.

"The guy that turns the big somersault into the end zone usually plants at the 2 (yard line) and does his big somersault into the end zone," Shaw said. "Well, the 2-yard line will be the spot of the enforcement, and we'll back them up 15 yards from there."

Instead of a 6-0 lead with the conversion attempt pending, the offending team would face a first-and-10 at the 17-yard line with the score still 0-0.

Naturally, some fans already are grumbling that the new interpretation deprives players of the right to celebrate their achievements. Shaw says it does nothing of the sort, noting that officials are instructed to "show some latitude" when a player is merely expressing "exuberance" following a touchdown.

He illustrated his point by citing a controversial call in last December's Pinstripe Bowl between Kansas State and Syracuse. A Wildcat receiver incurred a 15-yard penalty simply because he gave a quick military-style salute to the crowd after scoring a touchdown that closed the gap to 36-34. Because of an overzealous official, the potential game-tying two-point conversion had virtually no chance of succeeding.

The unsportsmanlike-conduct rule, Shaw emphasized, is merely aimed at curtailing any action that is "demeaning to an opponent or makes a mockery of the game or looks like it's choreographed."

He hopes SEC players will be mindful of the new interpretation and police themselves so that officials don't have to.

"Some people will say, 'So you all (officials) are going to take touchdowns away? No, the player will decide to give up his touchdown when he does that," Shaw said. "It's important for the fans to understand that what is an unsportsmanlike foul does not change. We're not tightening down. The same fouls will be unsportsmanlike conduct."

Moreover, if a ball-carrier waits until he is in the end zone before launching into a self-centered celebration routine, the 15-yard penalty he incurs will be assessed on his team's ensuing kickoff - same as before.

Though unpopular in some quarters, the new interpretation of the unsportsmanlike-conduct rule is merely another step in the ongoing campaign to maintain the game's dignity by eliminating over-the-top taunting and showboating.

Former Cleveland Browns head man Paul Brown supposedly said it first and probably said it best: "When you get into the end zone, act like you've been there."

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