On his 18th birthday last Saturday, Matt Owens lived the dream. The senior quarterback of his high school football team, Owens ran for a long TD late in the fourth quarter for the winning score of the Massachusetts state championship game. As the goal line became visible and the outcome was becoming clear, Owens raised his left hand for about 7 yards of his run before getting to the end zone.
The dream, however, became a nightmare. The referees called Owens for excessive celebration and the flag negated the TD. Owens and his teammates lost 16-14.
The Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association issued a statement about the rules and the interpretation and how each team was reminded before the season about the heightened focus on the celebration violations. The MIAA pointed out the learning experience that is available from this moment and the fact that the other team's win is being "tarnished" by the hubbub of Owens' situation.
The MIAA can have its say, of course. And everyone else can clearly and openly say shame on the referee, the MIAA and anyone who believes the letter of the law is better or more important than right and wrong or even justice being served.
No one is defending, the over-the-top, look-at-me antics of athletes because it has become tiresome. Blame the NFL receivers who celebrate after getting 8 yards and a first down or the safety who thumps his chest after making a tackle 18 yards down field -- more times than not, when their team is getting beat by three touchdowns. Blame coaches at any level who not only condone players showing out on the field or in practice but do a fair amount of theatrics on the sideline themselves.
But to turn what should have been the single biggest highlight/memory of Matt Owens' young life into a something he'll never forget for all the wrong reasons is tragic. And it's only made worse by the ridiculousness of the claim, "It's a teachable moment." What's the lesson: Don't get excited? Don't show emotion? Don't embrace happiness or success or life's good times?
Did he point a finger at an opponent or fire imaginary pistols into the air. No, he raised an arm with a finger in the air because he was about to score a touchdown that was going to make his team No. 1.
The fallout has been a train wreck from the moment the touchdown run was called back. Owens threw an interception on the next play, and as soon as the game was over the gamesmanship of the MIAA began.
This was a blown call and a river of excuses and rationalizations. The fact that it was a point of emphasis from the start of the season and how the proper procedure was followed is all well and good. It's also semantics. The teachable moment here was the chance for adults to admit they made a mistake and own up to it. The only lesson left behind is that "excessive" excuse-making and explaining can turn any mistake into a footnote.
Owens' act was barely a celebration to begin with, and considering the moment, is light years from "excessive" celebration. And to go one step further, considering the moment and the stakes and the magnitude of this play, Owens' brief arm raise is more sportsman-like than unsportsmanlike.
Are we really to this point? The Sharpies and cell phone calls that created laughable and circus-like choreography has begat flips into the end zone and posing on logos has begat over-energized, self-serving attention-getting antics for routine plays. And, hey, if you want to stop that, fine and best of luck.
But to encourage a process that appears to be aimed at taking the passion and joy and excitement out of sports -- especially high school sports -- is downright laughable and is bordering on insane.
Rules are made and adopt with the expectation that the players and coaches follow them. This rule -- as signified by this enforcement and the MIAA's backing of it -- is obviously prepared to prevent embracing the uncontrollable joy that is fulfilling a lifetime dream of scoring a state-championship winning touchdown. And if that's even acceptable under this rule, then which is more excessive, the rule or the violation?
Keep your head up, Matt Owens, and here's hoping you enjoyed your birthday -- without celebrating excessively like blowing out candles or something.