The NFL is in the entertainment business, first and foremost, not the football business. So make no mistake, most of the league’s decisions are based on how the viewing public will respond, and its No. 1 goal right now is not simply to crack down on things like domestic violence and plays that lead to concussions because it’s the right thing to do, but also, and perhaps most importantly, because it means a more profitable bottom line.
It’s for this reason that the league’s crackdown on player celebrations has been so baffling to me. It’s also what prompted my touchdown celebration interpretation of “I’m just here so I don’t get fined.” Against the Patriots in Week 5, you may have seen the "highlight" of me “celebrating” by simply placing the ball on the ground and walking away like a robot.
The new efforts to emphasize rules outlawing certain forms of celebration come at a time when the NFL’s prime-time television ratings are down. (As someone whose pension is directly tied to the success of the league, that’s not something I’m particularly excited about.) The NFL, now more than ever, should look for ways to lift individual personalities and help sell its brand, right?
Football is the No.1 reality TV show in the country, and like every good show it needs villains and bad guys. But instead of allowing players to act as the characters it needs, the NFL has decided to assume the role of the villain by taking some of the fun out of the game, all under the guise of “protecting its integrity.” Why do I feel it’s a guise? For starters, they use the celebrations in all of their advertising. They’re cracking down on celebrations and illegal hits, but then turn around and use that material to market their brand on websites and in television commercials. One thing my grandfather always said to me was, “You can’t stand on both sides of a fence.”
As a player who has been on the receiving end of multiple illegal hits (that went both uncalled and unfined), I won’t condone them, but I feel like most people can identify with touchdown celebrations on a very basic level, because scoring an NFL touchdown is hard. I’ve played in the NFL for six years and have only done it seven times (in part because my 5'7" frame isn’t exactly red-zone gold.) The cliché line is “act like you’ve been there before,” but the truth is, you might never get there again, and anyone who is familiar with my journey to the NFL knows there was a long period of time when I thought I never would in the first place. And the fans watching at home will probably never get there, with some exceptions.
As a kid growing up in Johnstown, Pa., I badly wanted to be one of those exceptions. After my brother Artrell was drafted by the Bengals, in 1998, I watched Chad Johnson energize the entire city from an entertainment standpoint with his personality and self-expression. He made it fun to go to Bengals games; he made it fun to be a Bengals fan; he filled stadiums with anticipation for his antics. I felt like he was the most entertaining football player I’d ever seen, and I became a wide receiver because of Chad Johnson and his persona, flair and, of course, his celebrations.
I tuned in every Sunday hoping Chad Johnson (or my other idol, Steve Smith) would score, just so I could see what celebration he did. There’s one that really stood out, even now. I remember being in college at Toledo, in 2005, and we were going to the GMAC Bowl to play the University of Texas-El Paso in Mobile, Ala. That week the Bengals were playing the Lions. Johnson seemed to be celebrating in some new way every week that season, and I couldn’t get enough of it. I came back to the hotel room and saw that he’d scored a touchdown, but when I finally caught the celebration, it was no celebration at all. He just acted like he couldn’t think of anything, and handed the ball to the ref. I was so disappointed.
Johnson faced constant criticism from the people who would sell you an NFL that relies on most players remaining anonymous, faceless warriors. They make an exception for quarterbacks because it’s a quarterback-driven league, but they aren’t particularly interested in players becoming bigger than the entity, in part because careers are so short and players need to be expendable.
For instance, if I went to work in the Browns’ pro shop, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who recognized me. Most fans could be buying my jersey from me and not even recognize who I am. (It’s a hypothetical, because my jersey isn’t even available in our pro shop.) Efforts to suppress individual expression ensure this remains the case for the vast majority of players. The NFL is the giant, and the shield is what they’re selling, not the name on the back of the jersey. They have to funnel you out, and they’re going to. That’s the circle of life in the NFL.
But if the only means of making a smooth transition from one generation of NFL players to the next is to take fun out of the game, then you risk losing the next generation of fans, fans like my younger self who wanted nothing more than to see the Chad Johnsons of the football world celebrating their time in the sun. Take that away, and you’re probably attracting what you fear most: disinterest.
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