Far Afield: Taunt is cheap

Author: Jason Kelly '95

Jason Kelly

How do you know when the vapors have overcome college football? When an official pulls out a yellow handkerchief, not to fan himself over the affront to his sensibilities, but to call a taunting penalty on . . . Navy. That’s what happened last weekend after Midshipmen quarterback Kriss Proctor scored a touchdown in overtime and celebrated in a way that did not pass official David Vaughan’s white-glove inspection.

Proctor bounced around like a fool, bumped into the back of an Air Force player and extended what, admittedly, did not appear to be his deepest sympathies. The exchange lasted maybe one second before a teammate had Proctor wrapped up and swept away to celebrate. For that, the quarterback cost Navy 15 yards on the point-after attempt and, in effect, the game.

Air Force blocked the conversion attempt and then made its own after scoring a touchdown on its overtime turn, winning 35-34. That’s a high price for a few choice words, if that’s even what prompted the flag. In a statement supporting the call, referee Mike Defee said “The Navy player got in the face of an Air Force player right after the play.” Kind of. However incendiary Proctor’s (unknown) comments — he said he told the Air Force player to move “explicitly” — the contact was incidental and glancing.

None of it should have mattered. Personal space and sensitive tastes suffer more offense in a Manhattan crosswalk. It was an important game, on national television, in front of a delirious home crowd, and Navy already had made an 18-point fourth-quarter comeback just to reach overtime. Ordering Proctor not to be excited, even excessively so, contradicts the accepted behavior of people who like to insist that players should “act like they’ve been there before.”

Nobody has made any serious attempt to douse media hype or tame fans, some of whom have been known to call their opponents convicts and “creminoles” and much, much worse. The gathering storm of even a routine game sets a tone of significance and antagonism that builds to a Saturday crescendo. In the middle of that emotional tumult, we demand that players transcend it with restraint we would never ask of ourselves.

And, often as not, those players know and respect each other. That’s more than fans shouting vulgarities at jersey numbers can say. The actions that give officials fantods might well be the tough-guy posturing of brothers and best friends, probably topping out at about the level of epithets shouted across the courtyard between Notre Dame’s Dillon and Alumni halls. That’s a virtual rite of passage, but for players conditioned to commit what would be assault on the street, that sort of conversation is considered conduct unbecoming.

Back in 1993, with Notre Dame and Florida State preparing for a No. 1 vs. No. 2 confrontation, a rumor circulated around campus that Irish quarterback Kevin McDougal had been receiving harassing phone calls from the Seminoles. I went out after practice two days before the game to ask him about it for The Observer.

After two weeks of hype — Notre Dame had been idle the previous Saturday — most of the reporters in town must have been at the Linebacker by then, so I had McDougal all to myself, anticipating a bombshell. He laughed off my question.

Yeah, McDougal said, leaning against the fence outside Cartier Field, he had been getting those calls. They were from one of his best friends in high school, a Florida State player, talking playground trash like they had as kids. Having fun.

No reason to reach for a hanky.

Jason Kelly, a former sports columnist for the South Bend Tribune, is an associate editor of the University of Chicago Magazine. His most recent book is Shelby’s Folly: Jack Dempsey, Doc Kearns, and the Shakedown of a Montana Boomtown. Email him at jasonkelly545@gmail.com.