LSU’s 41-11 win over Florida thankfully relegated a first-quarter penalty incurred by LSU punter Brad Wing to a minor footnote. As anyone watching the CBS broadcast saw, Wing beautifully executed a fake punt and ran 52 yards to score an easy touchdown. Only it wasn’t a touchdown because a few yards short of the end zone, Wing briefly raised his hands in celebration — presumably spreading his “wings” — which forced the officials to throw a flag for unsportsmanlike conduct.
You can watch the play in the video above.
This is a new rule for 2011. Rule 9, Section 2 of the NCAA’s 197-page official football playing rules was amended to add the following key sentence:
There shall be no unsportsmanlike conduct or any act that interferes with orderly game administration on the part of players, substitutes, coaches, authorized attendants or any other persons subject to the rules, before the game, during the game or between periods. Infractions for these acts by players are administered as either live-ball or dead-ball fouls depending on when they occur.
Previously an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty was treated as a dead-ball (after the play) foul even if it occurred while the play was still in progress. The NCAA’s Football Rules Committee decided to change this specifically to cover cases like Wing’s pre-touchdown “taunting”:
Example 1: A ball carrier is in the open field racing for the goal line. At the opponent’s 10-yard line he turns, makes a taunting gesture to his opponents pursuing him and then scores an apparent touchdown.
RULING IN 2011: Live-ball foul for unsportsmanlike conduct. Fifteen-yard penalty from the spot of the foul and the score is negated. First and 10 at the 25-yard line. (Under current rules the touchdown counts and the penalty is enforced on the try or the kickoff.)
So what exactly is the Football Rules Committee? It’s a 12-member group formed from the larger NCAA bureaucracy. At least half the members have to be football coaches and one-quarter must be athletics administrators. There are also minimal requirements to ensure adequate regional representation.
Most importantly, this is an association-wide committee, meaning that only six of the 12 seats go to Division I members — and that includes both the Football Bowl Subdivision and Football Championship Subdivision schools. Divisions II and III are guaranteed three seats each. The current chairman of the committee is Scot Dapp, the head coach at Division III Moravian College in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. There are only three Division I FBS representatives on the committee — Alfred White, the associate commissioner of Conference USA; and two head coaches, Wisconsin’s Bert Bielema and Air Force’s Troy Calhoun.
It’s not entirely clear why the Football Rules Committee felt it necessary to change the rule regarding dead-ball enforcement of unsportsmanlike conduct penalties. The committee’s report only cited a brief “Statement on Sportsmanship” issued in 2009 by the same committee:
After reviewing a number of plays involving unsportsmanlike conduct, the committee is firm in its support of the unsportsmanlike conduct rules as they currently are written and officiated. Many of these fouls deal with players who inappropriately draw attention to themselves in a pre-meditated, excessive or prolonged manner. Players should be taught the discipline that reinforces football as a team game.
The problem with this argument is that the enforcement of the new rule brings greater attention on minor acts of “unsportsmanlike” conduct than would otherwise occur. Wing’s penalty is proof of that. His “taunting” act was an insignificant gesture made in the heat of the moment. It would have been forgotten if not for the official’s flag. Furthermore, it wasn’t the gesture that “drew attention” to Wing. It was the fact that he was a punter who had just bamboozled the Florida defense and scored a touchdown. If the rules committee is so concerned about the purity of “football as a team game” that cannot countenance any act of individualism, it might as well ban fake punts and trick plays altogether.
This brings me back to the makeup of the committee itself. While eight of the current members are coaches, six of them coach well outside big time college football. There isn’t a single SEC coach on the committee, yet somehow the coaches at Maryville College (Tennessee) and Southwest Baptist University (Missouri) get to decide when a touchdown in a nationally televised Florida-LSU game isn’t really a touchdown. And there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of public accountability. The rules committee does answer to another group — the Playing Rules Oversight Panel — which is also an association-wide committee that includes Division II and III representatives. But this is just another layer of bureaucracy that excludes the student-athletes and fans altogether.
At the SEC level, college football isn’t an academic exercise. It’s a major economic and cultural event. What sounds like a noble principle of sportsmanship in a boardroom can translate into actions that compromise the aesthetic and competitive integrity of the product you’re marketing to millions of customers. At some point you’re not promoting fair play — you’re tampering with the outcome of the game. Luckily Wing’s penalty did not substantially alter what was an easy LSU victory. But if something like this were to happen in, say, the SEC Championship Game, on a score that proved decisive to the outcome, then you’re talking about a major national scandal.