How to celebrate victory: a lesson for academic competitions from the NFL
Posted December 12, 2017 by Travis Pulver
When Cam Newton ‘dabbed’ after scoring a touchdown, an NFL fan said she found it offensive. When Randy Moss pretended to pull his pants down and ‘moon’ fans in the end zone stands, many opposing fans complained.
When then-San Francisco 49ers receiver Terrell Owens celebrated a touchdown by running to the center of the field where he raised his arms in victory while standing on the Dallas Cowboys star—well, Cowboys safety George Teague leveled him. Similar stories are repeated every year, in nearly every sport. This has raised the question of, how much celebrating is too much celebrating. The NFL tried to remove all celebrating from its games, but recently back-pedaled from that decision.
Here at ICS we of course wanted to extend this line of thinking into the academic competition sphere and ask ourselves, is celebrating a victory in an academic competition good or bad for the competitors, their opponents, and the game itself? How should we regulate (or not regulate) these displays of exuberance in academic competitions?
The Science of Celebrating.
Celebrating is second nature to us. When we accomplish something, we want to celebrate. It is not only exciting to celebrate, it is actually part of our nature to do just that. A number of research studies seem to say that it is actually built in to our genetic code to celebrate a victory.
David Matsumoto and Hyisung Hwang published a study in 2014, “Dominance Threat Display for Victory and Achievement in Competition Context” in the journal Motivation and Emotion. In it, they observed certain gestures as being common immediately after athletes won an event or accomplished something significant. "We see these behaviors occur, like the chest out, torso pushed out, the head tilted back, arms raised above the shoulders, a hand in a fist, a punching motion, and the face either grimacing or showing aggression and anger," said Matsumoto.
These gestures were not observed in just a specific population or by participants in certain sports. They were observed in athletes from many different cultures, including blind Paralympic ones, which supports the argument that we are born to celebrate and it’s not something we learn as we grow up through competitions.
So, if celebrating is something that is biologically innate, why have the NFL and other sporting organizations fought it for so long? Well, the NFL hasn’t always fought it. In 1984, the league did have a rule against “prolonged, excessive, or premeditated celebration by individual players or groups of players.” But the league also noted that “spontaneous expressions of exuberance will be permitted.” (SI)
It wasn’t until 2006 that the NFL decided to crack down on celebrations and began turning many things into penalties or unsportsmanlike conduct and/or taunting. At that point, many of the things players were doing were thought of as having gone too far. They had surpassed what was considered celebrating and become something else.
Matsumoto would argue that the act of celebrating means much more than just happiness for achieving the desired goal. He would say that when we celebrate, we are also saying that we are better than our opponents. We are saying they are weaker and lesser than we are. "Many animals seem to have a dominant threat display that involves making their body look larger," Matsumoto said. "The alpha male goes to fight the other in a group and kills the other; the alpha male then shows that victory by enlarging the body and giving a roar, signaling, 'Don’t screw with me.'"
The NFL was okay with the ‘expression of triumph’ side of celebrations. But where they became problematic is when the expressions were so intense, they became more than just an expression of triumph – they became taunting, directly focused at the opposing players.
So— how come the NFL decided to change course and relax its rules against celebrations a year after they appeared to crackdown on them? They realized that there is a differentiation between celebration of excellence and taunting of failures. Celebrating excellence shows young players that they are allowed to have fun, that they can be happy when they play, and they can express that happiness by celebrating their success. That is after-all much of what sports and all competitions are about. To allow for that, the league decided that if it properly legislated celebrations, it could allow for the ‘expression of triumph’ while taking away the ‘dominant threat display’ aspect of it.
What does this mean for Academic Competitions?
First of all, we should recognize that the celebration of victory is innate to human nature. All scientific studies that have examined this have shown evidence that it is built into our genetics to want to demonstrate our “dominance” over an opponent.
However, the extent and context of the celebration can be tempered and focused so that rather than a targeted taunt of dominance over another player, it is a focus on celebrating our own victory and demonstrating excellence. This is what the NFL has done in its new rules about end-zone celebrations. According to a letter from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, offensive demonstrations, celebrations that are prolonged and delay the game, and celebrations directed at an opponent, will still be penalized in order continue "sportsmanship, clean competition, and setting good examples for young athletes."
This is one thing that academic competitions can learn from the experience the NFL has gone through in trying to cut out celebrations completely. We cannot and should not attempt to completely remove celebrations of a victory in academic competitions; however, just like with the NFL, we should setup structures to help students learn constructive celebrations. Demonstrations celebrating the excellence of our own skills in the victory are positive, motivating parts of a competition. Demonstrations that taunt other players for not being up to par take a negative stance that has little benefit to anyone in the competition, including the fans.
Coaches and educators alike are going to have to teach students what acceptable celebrations look like. To do that, the key is to focus on celebrating your own excellence. That way student can respect the game and their opponents while also celebrating and having fun with their victories.