Sunday, November 28, 1999

NFL players should try something new




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The trouble with the throat-slash gesture is not that it promotes violence. It's that it stifles originality.

        It's been done. It was once new and different and it is now old and hackneyed. In an age of sports saturation and media overkill, the throat slash has gone from cutting edge to cliche faster than a catch-phrase on Saturday Night Live. When Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre was caught in the act Sunday, he was retaliating for a throat-slash by Detroit's Robert Bailey made Sept. 19.

        You know the act has grown stale when the National Football League sees fit to legislate against it. Commissioner Paul Tagliabue may be a brilliant fellow, but he is so stiff he makes Bud Selig look like Puff Daddy. When Tagliabue decides some gesture sends the wrong message, it is a sure sign that it has already outlived its useful life.

        It's time to move on. It's time for the master thespians of professional football to create some new bit of business to draw attention to themselves and the products they endorse. When the grown-ups start catching on to pop culture, pop culture must reinvent itself or become irrelevant.

        The more straight-laced among us — me included — long for the days when players could score touchdowns without concern for choreography. There was an understated elegance to football as late as the early 1970s, upheld by stern coaches like Paul Brown, who admonished end zone celebrants to, “act like you've been there before.”

A stage for selling shoes
        The modern athlete is more demonstrative and less easily intimidated, the product of a television culture that promotes narcissism and destroys inhibition. All their world's a stage, and all their feats merely serve as the foundation for an image that can be sold to shoe companies. (Did someone say Deion Sanders?)

        Every second spent in front of a camera contributes to an athlete's name recognition. Any gesture that causes a cameraman to maintain his focus beyond the end of a play amounts to free advertising.

        The Ickey Shuffle was an atrocity, but it became so synonymous with the Cincinnati Bengals' 1988 Super Bowl season that cameramen customarily sprinted to the end zone whenever Ickey Woods scored. (Later, when the NFL decided The Shuffle was unseemly, Woods moved his dance routine to the sideline.)

        Periodically, some player with an ounce of originality will introduce a new step. Neil Smith's sack dance, in which the defensive lineman pretends to hit a home run, was the last real breakthrough in NFL pantomime. Yet even that inspired effort grew tired over time.

        The real innovators don't repeat themselves. When Desmond Howard was at Michigan, he completed a 93-yard punt return against Ohio State by striking a Heisman Trophy pose in the end zone. He probably would have won the award anyway, but the pose helped link Howard's name with the stiff-armed statue. Plus, it was funny.

Black and white gap?
        Tampa Bay's Warren Sapp, one of the players who have embraced the throat slash, claims this week's crackdown makes the NFL the No Fun League. Jets linebacker Bryan Cox says the ban is a reflection of the racial divide between black athletes and white administrators.

        “White America doesn't understand the black athlete,” Cox told the New York Daily News. “When a guy does something like that (throat slash), he's basically saying, "You're cut off. Nothing else is gonna happen today. I'm not giving you a play.' To take something like that and make a life-and-death parallel is stupid.”

        Cox may have a point about cultural differences, but his take on the throat slash is either naive or disingenuous. An index finger drawn across the throat is a gesture as universally understood as an extended middle finger. It's more than a taunt; it's a threat — one that will surely trickle down to the playgrounds.

        Paul Tagliabue, in the interests of his game, has an obligation to penalize such behavior. The players should make it their challenge to come up with something more clever.

        Tim Sullivan welcomes your email at tsullivan@enquirer.com.