Aside from possibly Cam Newton (in locales outside of East Central Alabama, anyway), there's nothing college football fans despise more than an unnecessary unsportsmanlike conduct penalty with the game on the line. There's not a fan alive who wouldn't prefer officials keep their flags in their pocket whenever possible, and given the emotion, competitiveness and spectacle of a big college football game, it's almost always possible to let a touchdown celebration to go unpunished.
Which is why the NCAA's decision to potentially make those penalties even more damaging in 2011 -- by making them a live ball foul when committed before the whistle, thus able to take an otherwise legitimate touchdown off the board -- has already become the most criticized, most hated rules change in recent memory.
But one SEC official says the furor is going to be much ado about nothing. Speaking to the Knoxville News-Sentinel, the SEC's John Wright assures fans the zebras aren't going to deploy the nuclear unsportsmanlike option unless they have to (emphasis added):
Wright ... says conference officials won’t be “nitpicky.”SEC supervisor of officials Steve Shaw echoed Wright's statements, saying the league has made those calls a point of offseason emphasis and that "we don't want to be too technical" when applying the rule.
“If somebody turns a flip or flips a bird at somebody, a team should be penalized,” he said. “But if somebody does something borderline, we will not call it. Everybody in the stadium will know (that it was an unsportsmanlike act) if we call it.
“The way we have been told (by the SEC), these things have to jump out at you. If a guy stands over somebody and beats his chest, we know that’s a foul.”
But we already knew the SEC doesn't like overzealous unsportsmanlike flags. Remember A.J. Green getting penalized for this in the dying minutes against LSU?
The league subsequently admitted the call had been blown, but by then the Bulldogs had already lost. And even if the SEC is doing its best to prevent needless unsportsmanlike calls, what about the leagues whose officials have been responsible for this ...
... or this* ...
If there's any silver lining to this collection of horrors, it's that even in 2011, none of these flags would have negated the touchdowns in question. But that lining doesn't remove the giant black cloud that suggests that given the power to unnecessarily alter the score over perceived unsportsmanlike conduct, some official somewhere will.
So we appreciate Wright's reassurances. But until/unless we actually reach the end of the 2011 season without some new outrage perpetrated by this rule, we're going to continue believing this to be a terrible, terrible idea.
*Incidentally, this was the officiating decision which Lou Holtz would later decry as a "shavesty of justice." Just so you know.