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Unsportsmanlike Penalties Are Still College Football’s Calling Card

The Oklahoma Sooners and Texas Longhorns don’t annually square off and beget massive ratings because the schools admire each other. In fact, most accounts indicate the teams from neighboring states have detested one other for more than a century. The rivalry’s namesake, the Red River Showdown, literally comes from a historic dispute that induced martial law.

As fans shuffled into the Cotton Bowl this year, players got reacquainted with the long-simmering clash. Tempers flared. Obscenities spewed. Horns Down — an unforgivable sin masquerading as a harmless gesture, if we are to believe the discourse by Texas fans — made an appearance or two.

Ultimately, every player was penalized. Before the game had even started.

The act of flagging every single participant wasn’t terribly bizarre to those who have paid attention to officiating trends. It even happened later the same day, during a prime-time tilt between Notre Dame and USC. This season’s Tennessee-Kentucky matchup was the first in three years that didn’t involve the entire rosters of both teams being penalized. Not even holiday weekends or bowl season is immune to the blanket ruling.

Through 10 games, Power Five teams are seeing virtually the same rate of overall penalties as they did a season ago. But a specific rule is having its moment in the sun, accounting for much of the laundry on the field: unsportsmanlike conduct.

The rule has been around for more than a half-century, but a noticeable uptick in use occurred in the early- to mid-1990s, notably around the time the Miami Hurricanes’ swagger took the sport by storm. Rule 9-2, informally known as the “no celebration in the end zone” rule, fundamentally changed college football forever. Its implementation led some to ask whether the rule impeded an athlete’s right to freely express his or her religion on the field.1

It has since expanded to include and penalize all manner of actions, including an attempt to keep coaches off the field.2 Intentionally removing a helmet during play, touching an official, hiding the ball under a uniform — it all comes with the risk of a 15-yard penalty.

And the interpretation of the rule is increasingly rigid.

Unsportsmanlike conduct was called on the Washington Huskies this season after its kick returner laid down in the end zone to try to hide from the opposing team. Every player on the field during the Coastal Carolina-Georgia Southern game received the penalty after a dance party broke out before the fourth quarter.3 Furry crowd-pleasers aren’t safe, either: Jackson State’s mascot picked up a flag for attempting to break up a fight. Alabama Head Coach Nick Saban didn’t make it to Week 2 without being assessed the infraction.

This season, there have been 188 unsportsmanlike conduct penalties, an average of 0.73 per game at the Power Five level. That’s tied for the highest mark through 10 games of any season since at least 2008. On offense and defense, the rate at which these flags fly are at all-time highs.4 Five percent of all penalties this season have been of the unsportsmanlike variety, up from just 1 percent in 2011. And while a few teams like Iowa State and Notre Dame have yet to accrue one, many more have had multiple, including USC and its 11 — two shy of the single-season record since 2005.5

College football stands in stark contrast to the NFL, which has loosened its celebratory rules in recent years.6 NFL games are seeing 0.52 unsportsmanlike conduct penalties per game, the lowest mark at this point in the season since at least 2005.

The stringent manner in which these penalty calls are deployed has had major ramifications on the college game. Last weekend, they played a pivotal role in Minnesota’s first loss of the season to Iowa. They have previously wiped away touchdowns and nearly ruined Oregon’s chances of reaching the College Football Playoff. It is not an overstatement to say they have had a major influence on the outcome of games.

In perhaps the greatest single-game demonstration of ostentatious on-field behavior, the Miami Hurricanes leveled the Texas Longhorns in the 1991 Cotton Bowl. Dennis Erickson’s squad put up 46 points and 202 penalty yards in the rout, including nine unsportsmanlike conduct penalties. Much has changed in the decades since. A college player can no longer so much as high-five a fan, while in the NFL, a team can execute a potato sack race or the Cha Cha Slide. With the latitude to essentially flag unsportsmanlike conduct on any play, it’s no wonder the rule’s raw and per-game totals have exploded in college football.

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  1. That it penalized kneeling following a touchdown led Miami Dolphins receiver and ordained minister Irving Fryar to call the rule “another trick from the devil.”

  2. Many coaches now task an assistant with get-back responsibilities: a person assigned to pull a coach off the field so as to not draw a penalty.

  3. Three players who had been previously tagged with unsportsmanlike conduct were ejected.

  4. At least for seasons in which data is available.

  5. The record was set by Louisville last season.

  6. Commissioner Roger Gooddell even wrote a letter to the fans detailing it.

Josh Planos is a writer based in Omaha. He has contributed to The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Washington Post.