The Need for Celebrations in Sports

In 1980, the disco group Kool & the Gang declared to the whole world, “Celebrate good times, come on!” Their hit, “Celebration”, is a jovial, infectious song, pleading to the listener to simply let go and have some fun.

Celebrations are great.

Got a job promotion? Great! Invite some friends over for a BBQ.

Graduated college? Awesome! Go to a nice restaurant with the family.

Managed to do your laundry without losing any socks? Holy Cow! Go for a round of beers with your buddies.

But for some reason there’s one landscape where celebrations aren’t as universally accepted. It’s a place where, if you do a good thing, you’re expected to maintain a stern, stoic expression.

Ondrej Palat
Ondrej Palat gets congratulated by teammates after scoring a goal.(Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports)

I am, of course, referring to the stigma attached to athletes celebrating individual achievements and efforts.

“Act Like You’ve Been There Before”

It’s everybody’s go-to expression when an athlete goes off on an elaborate celebration. There’s a code that exists in sports where it’s impolite to show up your opponent. Athletes must have a respect for one another and throughout the game the athletes must remember that mutual respect and act accordingly.

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It’s a cute idea in theory but when you have a bunch of individuals playing emotionally charged games for large sums of money in front of tens of thousands of energized fans, you’re going to get some emotion coming from the players whether you like it or not. When someone scores a big goal or hits a big home run, they’re indubitably going to have a surge of adrenaline pumping through them and they’ll usually let it show. It’s not to show up or taunt the opposition; it’s a natural reaction to an event that was cool.

The energetic/heat-of-the-moment celebration is one of two examples of types of celebrations you’ll see. The other example is the pre-planned, well-choreographed celebration.

These are just as permissible. For entertainers (because, y’know, that’s what athletes are) to just bottle up their personality and to play sports like robots is to take away a fun aspect of the game for the fans. Fans WANT to see the creativity of their favourite stars. They want to see that their favourite team is actually having fun while playing.

But, for some reason, many are still opposed to celebrations. They call these kinds of celebrations “classless” and “disrespectful to the game” (as if the game is some holy, spiritual vessel that must not be tarnished).

The Newest Outrage

About a week and a half ago, Toronto Blue Jays slugger Jose Bautista hit a go-ahead 3 run home run in the American League Divisional Series in a heated seventh inning.

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Bautista did 2 things that are generally frowned upon in the MLB: he admired his home run and he flipped his bat.

For some reason, these two actions are the most disrespectful thing a baseball player can really do in a game. The perceived disrespect is that by admiring their own work, they’re hurting the pitcher’s feeling and that’s a no-no (apparently). I guess in an ideal baseball league, every home run is followed up by a head-down, hard sprint around the bases, just like Adam Rosales.

Bautista’s bat flip was straight up awesome. It was a massive exclamation mark following the equally massive home run he had just hit. Most people didn’t even have a problem with this particular reaction. It was an awesome moment and he acted accordingly.

But Sam Dyson, the pitcher whose pitch Bautista just launched into outer space, had this to say about Bautista’s celebration:

“Jose (Bautista) needs to calm that down, just kind of respect the game a little more.” -Sam Dyson

As I stated earlier, there’s a notion that actually exists that these sports deserve, nay demand, actual respect. As if it’s something more than a game for owners and athletes to get rich off of and for the paying customer to get excited about.

Bautista’s flip was excused by many for it being such a big moment but under ordinary circumstances, it would probably be condemned by analysts and fans alike. Brawls routinely get started after a player admires their home run. You might even see the same player get beaned by a pitch in his next at bat because of his haughtiness. But what’s the point of restricting a player from expressing his unbridled enthusiasm for the sport? There’s no sense in having “respect” for the game when you don’t allow anybody to display their passion for the game.

NFL’s Celebration Controversies

If you call the alarm over baseball celebrations laughable, then you can call the anger over football celebrations absurd.

In football there is an intricate set of rules put in place in order to prevent players from having any fun celebrating touchdowns. In 2006,  the league instituted a 15 yard penalty for any player who goes down to the ground or uses a prop (including the football) during a touchdown celebration. The reason for the rule, well, ummm, I suppose your guess is as good as mine.

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Growing up a Cincinnati Bengals fan, I was fortunate to watch Chad Johnson (no, not that Chad Johnson) dominate the league, all while pulling his creative shtick. His touchdown celebrations were reason enough to watch Bengals games back in the day and he scarcely disappointed. It was a treat watching every week, waiting to see how he’d make us laugh this time.

But the league made sure we wouldn’t see anymore creativity coming after touchdowns. Many now refer to the National Football League as the No Fun League because of their harsh stance against the players expressing themselves.

The anti-celebration rule was at its most disappointing when Kansas City Chiefs safety Husain Abdullah was penalized for praying after scoring a touchdown. The referees misinterpreted what Abdullah was doing. Praying, you see, is permitted after scoring touchdowns, but the officials thought Abdullah’s positioning in Muslim prayer deserved a penalty flag.

Hockey’s Own Problems

It seems that baseball’s main issue is dealing with the emotional celebrations while football deals mainly with the pre-planned, elaborate celebrations.

Hockey kind of deals with a bit of both of these.

Alex Ovechkin received major backlash after his infamous “hot stick” goal celebration back in 2009.

Tomas Hertl was harshly criticized for celebrating with great exuberance after scoring a beautiful goal a couple of years back.

PK Subban’s actions were also brought into question after his enthusiastic reaction to this overtime game winning goal in a regular season game.

In each case the same points were brought up: you have to respect the game, you have to respect your opponents, and you have to act like you’ve been there before. Any signs of personality or excitement are frowned upon, it seems. Yahoo!’s Puck Daddy even tried to ban the slang term “celly” from hockey’s vernacular when talking about a goal celebration, the word itself not being good enough for the league.

Goal celebrations are honestly awesome. The excitement of Patrick Kane dropping to one knee after a sweet goal is palpable. Or how about a funky dance by Jordin Tootoo after his goal last week? It’s just something for fans to love and appreciate.

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Last season, PK Subban skated an approximate 519 feet while celebrating goals last season. Alex Ovechkin skated an extra 1,679 feet after his tallies in excitement. When star players get excited after scoring it electrifies the arena and their teammates. It’s a necessary part of the game.

It’s important to be able to see the passion and excitement that players have when they do something truly special. It’s unimaginable putting restrictions on something that doesn’t even have an effect on the game. Some kind of “respect” is mandatory around all of these leagues but at what cost? Why take away an actually fun and harmless aspect of these sports?

It’s especially disheartening when you consider how recent this kind of criticism is.

Why is Teemu Selanne allowed to celebrate like this but Artem Anisimov was ripped apart after he basically did the same thing.

Why was Theo Fleury allowed to skate the distance of the ice after his goal but Nail Yakupov was called arrogant and an idiot for doing the same?

Imagine the outcry that would start for no reason nowadays if somebody celebrated a goal like David “Tiger” Williams used to.

Imagine the brawls that would begin if a baseball player called a home run before his at bat, a la Babe Ruth. But the Babe’s arrogance is now the stuff of legends as opposed to a showboating, cocky ballplayer.

The stigma behind athletes celebrating is absolutely ludicrous and hearing people get genuinely upset about it is upsetting. Sports are meant to excite, entertain, and inspire but unwritten codes and some apparent need for “respect of the game” prevent part of that process.

I think it’d be best if we all take the advice from Kool & the Gang.

Celebrate good times.

Come on.