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Opinion: There's a difference between celebration and disrespect

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October 19, 2015


Okay, sports fans and fellow media folks, we need to have a talk. About happiness. And expressing happiness.

“But Casey,” you say. “You’re an Avalanche fan, how could you possibly know what happiness is?”

In all seriousness though, isn’t happiness the reason why we watch sport as entertainment? While the lows can be gut-clenchingly low, the highs are like nothing else. That moment the puck hits the back of the opponent’s net, the goal horn drowning out your own cheers, this is what fans live for. This happiness is the experience people drop hundreds–sometimes thousands–of dollars on tickets and travel for.

Has a sporting event ever made you so happy you cried? Or jumped up and down? Have you ever awkwardly embraced the complete stranger next to you out of sheer elation or gone out on the town to celebrate a big win? When your team makes you happy, do you react at all?

Of course you do.

Keeping all that in mind, what I want to know is why do we demand the exact opposite from the athletes who give us this happiness?

Last night against the Los Angeles Kings, Avalanche forward Matt Duchene scored his first goal of the season. He celebrated by bouncing himself off the glass, then embracing his teammates. Duchene is a player known for his restrained conduct on the ice and this celebration was no exception. He expressed his own personal happiness at having broken his goal drought and that was all. His celebration didn’t denigrate the Kings, he didn’t wave his glove in Jonathan Quick‘s face. Nothing like that.

Yet the way some people reacted on social media and in comments sections, you’d think he slid on his knees past he Kings bench and ripped his shirt off. According to some, Duchene was “celebrating like he just won game seven.” One Twitter user suggested he “chill out” while another said, “all you did was tie the game.”

Why exactly is a hockey player celebrating a goal considered such a bad thing? Scoring goals is Matt Duchene’s job. Were I him, I’d probably be pretty frustrated if I had trouble scoring goals. So him being happy when he scores them seems like a natural, acceptable thing.

The comments about Duchene’s celebration were far fewer than the comments on rookie phenom Jack Eichel‘s celebration when he scored shorthanded in the preseason. Eichel was praised for his “reserved” celebration, how “mature” he was because he wasn’t “showboating around.” Not celebrating a shorthanded goal is apparently the “classy” thing to do.

Yes, it was the preseason. And yes, Eichel is entitled to celebrate as little as he wants. But the idea that an eighteen-year-old rookie not celebrating a goal somehow makes him more mature or better than players who do is ridiculous. Expressing happiness is not a bad thing. If Jack Eichel wanted to hop around like a kid in a bouncy castle after scoring his first NHL goal, preseason or not, why on earth would that make him a bad or immature person?

Hockey writers can opine all they like about how they think the lack of a celebration points to Eichel’s determined, businesslike mindset and the focus of his play.  And heck, they might even be right. But I find it tough to believe that a player otherwise identical to Eichel would somehow be less focused and less determined to win solely because he expressed some happiness on the ice. They are different reactions to a naturally joyous event. Neither is “good” or “bad.”

batflipYou can’t throw a dart blindly at Google without running into examples of media and fans telling athletes that they are somehow wrong for celebrating. The Toronto Blue Jays were celebrating “like they just won the World Series” after their American League Division Series win over the Texas Rangers. José Bautista’s bat flip was somehow more disrespectful to baseball than steroids, cork bats, and the Black Sox Scandal all at once. P.K. Subban‘s celebrations are often criticized as “too long” or “too flashy.” Alex Ovechkin was infamously lambasted for his 50th NHL goal celebration, where he dropped his stick and acted like it was too hot to touch.

Even children aren’t safe. Kids playing at the Little League World Series are apparently expected to keep their emotions in check just as tight as highly-paid professionals, as their selfie celebrations were deemed “disrespectful” and “distracting” too.

Without getting too deep into semantics here, when I think about what defines a truly disrespectful act in sports, the following criteria come to mind: harmful to other players, harmful to spectators, harmful to teammates, harmful to any other person at all. And that’s about it. Of course the types of “harm” in the world are varied and many, but unless Bautista flips his bat into somebody’s face, is he hurting anyone?

If Ovechkin does a goofy dance or Duchene bounces off the glass after scoring a goal, is it hurting anyone?

There is a gulf between a goal celebration and something actually disrespectful, such as spitting on an opponent or the notorious, vicious send-offs seen in cricket. This gulf is a thousand miles wide. Disrespect is something that has to be wielded toward somebody or something. An athlete expressing emotion during the course of play harms no one.

As a society, we gain nothing by promoting this viewpoint that athletes being happy is somehow disrespectful of “the sport.” What is “the sport” anyway? Isn’t it that thing we all watch to make ourselves happy?

This is an interesting topic outside the world of sport as well. All too often, boys are raised with the idea that there are “acceptable” emotions and “unacceptable” emotions. The “strong, silent” trope is held up as a male ideal and boys are told that expressing certain emotions is girly and weak. Much has been written about how the suppression of “unacceptable” male emotions leads to men who grow up unable to express themselves unless angry. Or unable to express themselves at all.

In I Don’t Want to Talk about It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression, Terrence Real observes:

In our culture, expressiveness–even talking in an animated way with great emotional range–is reserved for women. Despite occasional rhetoric about increased communication, “the strong silent type” remains the ideal for men. Real men–men like Clint Eastwood and Arnold Schwarzenegger–are laconic bullet biters. … This impassive quality of traditional masculinity blends into the demeanor of depression. But the loss cuts a lot deeper than the mere matters of style. Many boys are taught to be so proficient at burying their emotions that they manage to bury it even from themselves.

This is a subject I could digress on in a number of ways, but we’ll leave it at one excerpt for the sake of brevity.

A sporting event should be a prime example of a place and time when we encourage young men to be open and free with their emotions. Nobody suggested Tom Hanks break down the doors of the Tampa Bay Lightning’s locker room after their Stanley Cup Final loss to declare, “There’s no crying in hockey!” and celebrations should be treated with the same dignity.

In the NHL in particular, tut-tutting at goal celebrations while simultaneously condoning fighting is hypocritical to the extreme. In the eyes of some, two grown adults slugging it out over a verbal slight is more acceptable than a player expressing happiness via body language. And while injuries during celebrations aren’t unheard-of, fighting sure hurts a hell of a lot more people.

When we push the message of stoicism at all costs and confuse callousness with professionalism, it’s us who’s being disrespectful.

And beyond the harm it causes on a societal level, who could possibly think a game is more entertaining if the players act like joyless automatons?

Joy is among the purest, most contagious of human emotions. We watch sports as tourists of human empathy, vicariously living the peaks and valleys of a season or a championship. The men we watch on our televisions and in our sold-out stadiums have already been brought up in a world where emotional expression is hard enough.

By trying to stamp out that joy and take it away, by implying that an athlete’s happiness is somehow disrespectful to the aloof, looming monolith of history, we help no one.

The memories of sporting events that lodge in our minds long-term are never moments of collected indifference. We remember the moments that evoked an emotional response in us. If a player wants to express his emotions on the ice, who are we to judge, considering we watch to experience those emotions secondhand?

By scolding players who dare to celebrate their achievements, we’re contributing to a culture where happiness is an unacceptable emotion for athletes to express unless they’ve just won game seven in overtime. There’s no need for this. The game and society will be better off without it. If Matt Duchene and P.K. Subban want to celebrate scoring goals, they aren’t disrespecting anyone.

In fact, they’re creating the very memories us fans will later cherish. Avalanche fans: you’ll remember that time Milan Hejduk, a player lauded for his stoicism, slid on his stomach and swam like a fish on the ice. You’ll remember Jamie McGinn‘s characteristic Captain Morgan pose, or that time Gabriel Landeskog fell on his face. You might not remember what the score was. You may not even remember if your team won the game.

But you’ll remember how it made you feel.

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