A prime example occurred last Saturday in Athens, Ga. Three "excessive celebration" penalties were called, the most notable coming after Georgia wide receiver A.J. Green made a spectacular touchdown catch to give the Dawgs a 13-12 lead against fourth-ranked LSU with 1:09 left. Green then shook his head and raised his arms in the air as he was mobbed by teammates.
Incredibly, a member of the SEC officiating crew threw a flag, citing Georgia for a 15-yard excessive-celebration penalty. Raising your arms in the air is "excessive" behavior?
In retrospect, that call probably turned the game. With the Dawgs forced to kick off from their 15-yard line, instead of their 30, LSU was able to return the ball to the UGA 43-yard line. Exploiting the short-field opportunity, the Tigers scored the game-winning touchdown a few plays later.
Rogers Redding, coordinator of football officials for the SEC, reviewed tape of the Green incident and admitted that the call appeared to be an over-reaction. Good for him; that's a step in the right direction. But the damage is done, and that call never should've been made in the first place.
Don't get me wrong: I've followed college football for 45 years, and there is NO ONE who despises showboating and taunting more than yours truly. I used to cringe when a player who scored a touchdown would childishly offer the ball to the nearest defender. I literally shuddered when a player who made a good run would stand over a fallen defender as if to say "I own you."
Frankly, I was thrilled a few years back when the NCAA announced plans to penalize teams whose players exhibited such bush-league behavior. I always believed in the old Paul Brown adage: "When you get to the end zone, act like you've been there before."
When a player calls attention to himself by high-stepping or making unnecessary dives across the goal line, that isn't celebrating; that's showboating. When he says or does anything to show up a defender, that isn't celebrating; that's taunting. When he breaks into a choreographed dance routine, that isn't celebrating; that's self-promotion.
A.J. Green wasn't showboating. He wasn't taunting. He wasn't self-promoting. He merely raised his arms - a simple act that cost his team a 15-yard penalty and, quite possibly, a victory.
Tennessee head coach Lane Kiffin, whose Vols host Green and the Bulldogs this Saturday, clearly feels some empathy.
"What an unfortunate penalty to happen," Kiffin said, shaking his head. "What a great play by A.J., then to have a 15-yard penalty at that point for what now seems not to be a penalty - the SEC came back and said that - was a very unfortunate situation."
After coaching the Oakland Raiders in 2007 and part of 2008, Kiffin is acutely aware that the term "excessive celebration" is defined quite differently in the NCAA than it is in the NFL.
"You've got to do a lot in the NFL to get a penalty," he said. "That's just how they write it and how they enforce it. It's always been very strict in college."
Clearly, it's a little too strict when a guy can't raise his arms to punctuate a spectacular go-ahead touchdown.