With 1:13 remaining in the inaugural Pinstripe Bowl and trailing 36-28, Kansas State quarterback Carson Coffman found receiver Adrian Hillburn for a 30-yard touchdown. Having cut the deficit to just two points, the Wildcats prepared for the two-point try to tie the seesaw contest. Much to their chagrin, their short-yardage package would not work, as one of the officials had assessed a 15 yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty to Hillburn and Kansas State for excessive celebration. Shortly after scoring, Hillburn saluted the crowd, an act apparently so reprehensible that the referee deemed it worthy of a game-changing flag. Pushed back to the 18 yard line, Coffman's pass attempt fell incomplete, and Syracuse recovered the ensuing onside kick to secure the win.
The official's ruling could be justified when exclusively evaluating the letter of the law. The NCAA rulebook - specifically rule 9-2-1d - states that "Any delayed, excessive, prolonged or choreographed act by which a player (or players) attempts to focus attention upon himself (or themselves)" is considered unsportsmanlike conduct and merits a 15-yard flag. While Hillburn's action could conceivably fall under this penumbra, a word-by-word analysis reveals that even that assumption is in question.
Upon closer examination, the unsportsmanlike conduct in question does not meet many of the enumerated criteria. The salute was neither delayed nor prolonged, nor was it apparently choreographed. Moreover, its excessiveness is also debatable; the two-second gesture affected nothing on the field of play and also was relatively muted. Hillburn was seemingly just expressing his excitement for scoring such a pivotal touchdown. His acts did not call undue attention to himself or his teammates, nor did they appear predetermined or malicious. It merely seemed to be a young man thrilled to have brought his team back into contention.
However, an objective argument based solely on the text of the NCAA rulebook will fall short. To truly evaluate this call, the time and score of the game must be considered, relative to the severity of the infraction. Hillburn's touchdown narrowed a Syracuse lead from eight to two points and gave Kansas State the opportunity to tie the game. With just over a minute left in a highly competitive game, the officials cannot make a call that so profoundly influences the outcome of the game (short of some glaring or blatant transgression). Had the player exhibited egregious misconduct, such as directly taunting an opponent or executing a choreographed celebration with teammates, a penalty would have been warranted. But in a situation like the one last night, the officials must swallow their whistles, hold their flags, and defer to the competitors on the gridiron.
For comparison - and a study in inconsistency - consider the Music City Bowl, a contest between the North Carolina Tar Heels and the Tennessee Volunteers that immediately followed the Syracuse-Kansas State game. Both games were officiated by Big Ten crews; however, each group's interpretation of unsportsmanlike conduct violations was drastically different. Whereas the Kansas State crew saw fit to flag Hillburn for his salute, the Music City Bowl crew allowed different Volunteer players to, on separate occasions, mimic wearing a championship belt, beat their chest in exultation, and even salute the crowd (in a far more demonstrative manner than did Hillburn), all without throwing a single flag.
By no means is this the only time that a dubious unsportsmanlike penalty flag has played an integral role in the outcome of a game. In a meeting between BYU and Washington in September 2008, quarterback Jake Locker ran for a touchdown with two seconds left to pull Washington within a point of the Cougars. After scoring, Locker jubilantly flipped the ball into the air and jumped around, celebrating with his teammates. The official threw a flag, pushing the extra point try back fifteen yards and leading to a blocked kick. Again, Washington is not blameless in defeat, but this is yet another case of the official following the letter of the law rather than the spirit.
There is one fact that must be clarified: the official did not lose the game for Kansas State - their defense surrendered 498 total yards and 36 points. But it was wrong for a game that was so competitive and entertaining throughout to be called on a mere technicality of no discernible impact or offense. Perhaps the fault, at its core, lies not with the official but the rulebook itself. More explicit descriptions of what does and does not constitute a penalty would foster greater consistency across various games and conferences.
That said, no amount of elucidation in a rulebook will eliminate the need for judgment calls. As arbiters of NCAA code, officials will always be required to use their discretion to do their job on the field. With that in mind, those officials owe it to the players and the fans alike to do everything possible to allow the game to be decided on the field of play by the student-athletes. Spectators attend games to watch players, not officials, and the striped men at the Pinstripe Bowl would have done well to remember that.