Over the past couple of seasons, the Big 12 Conference has made efforts to curtail taunting gestures, such as the “horns down” inverse of Texas’s “Hook ’em Horns” hand sign. Former Longhorns coach Tom Herman lobbied for the penalty’s initial adoption and then doubled down further after suffering a crucial loss in Austin to West Virginia in 2018.
In the loss, Mountaineers quarterback Will Grier scored on a 2-pt conversion with 16 seconds left to give West Virginia a 42-41 lead. As he walked into the endzone, however, he threw up the horns down gesture at the Longhorn fans in the stands. He was called for a penalty since he hadn’t yet crossed the goal line but the score stood. Herman, rather than owning the loss, criticized the officiating for not waving off the 2-pt conversion due to the penalty.
“I thought taunting before you cross the goal line negated a score,” Herman said. “I’ve got to brush up on my rules and get some questions answered.”
Given the storied history of the Longhorn program and their national perception as one of college football’s “blue blood” programs, it’s not surprising that their struggles over the past 10 years and change would invite such taunts from opponents. The Big 12, however, appears to be more concerned with pacifying the University of Texas in the name of “sportsmanship” rather than addressing real issues within the conference.
At the 2021 Big 12 Media Days in Arlington this past week, Big 12 coordinator of officials, Greg Burks stated that the league will be especially watchful for player taunts, particularly the “horns down” gesture.
“If you do a horns down to a Texas player as an opponent, it’s probably going to be a foul,” Burks said.
Surprisingly, Burks did show a slight reversal as it relates to the Grier penalty mentioned above when he added that, should a player flash the gesture toward the crowd, a penalty “probably” wouldn’t be called. Even there, however, he was careful to leave that door cracked open.
“Please all of you note, I said ‘probably.’ We have to consider intent and consider the situation. We’ll leave it to officials.”
The announcement has been met with widespread mockery, with media members and even former Longhorn alum voicing their disapproval of the penalty’s enforcement.
Horns Down shouldn’t be a penalty. It’s ridiculous that it is. https://t.co/1QayaH3szb
— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) July 15, 2021
Booooooo!!!!! We ain’t no punks around here. Let em throw the Horns down if they wish and suffer the consequences! 🤘🏾🤘🏾🤘🏾 https://t.co/E9a4r0KxOP
— Emmanuel Acho (@EmmanuelAcho) July 15, 2021
Former Sooners have taken to Twitter posting a barrage of their own “horns down” celebrations, including Baker Mayfield and Adrian Peterson.
**NSFW** The following content might offend some viewers, the mentally weak ones of course…. #Boomer #ZebrasProtectingLonghorns pic.twitter.com/ik0e3Q5dcj
— Baker Mayfield (@bakermayfield) July 16, 2021
Y’all have bigger problems to deal with…forever Horns Down #BoomerSooner https://t.co/JnOWsBoqTc pic.twitter.com/BKWoJCl3hK
— Adrian Peterson (@AdrianPeterson) July 15, 2021
While the taunting penalty isn’t exclusively reserved for the “horns down” gesture, that has been the lone specific instance identified by the Big 12, leading the taunt to become the shorthand name for the call in the process. Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby, shortly before the 2018 Big 12 Championship game between Oklahoma and Texas declare that even the standard “Hook ’em Horns” gesture could be penalized if flashed at an opposing player or sideline, which only further served to muddy the waters for the penalty’s application.
Sportsmanship is, of course, important in college football, and taunting should be limited where possible, but the Big 12’s stand against and lack of clarity on the issue has instead placed Texas, whether the university itself was actually pushing for this change or not, on a pedestal of sorts, thereby making them ripe for ridicule across the sport. If the Big 12 wants to tone down taunting, it should focus on more than a quick flash of a hand gesture that happens to correspond to a particular opponent and more on actual instances of taunting.
A defensive lineman or linebacker standing over a QB and staring down at them after a sack. That’s taunting. A cornerback wagging his finger and clapping in a receiver’s face after an incompletion. Also taunting. This goes both ways as receivers staring a hole through a defensive back before spinning the ball or shucking it aside should also be considered taunting. To be clear, it’s not to say these things are never allowed to happen. Sports inherently are tied to emotion, but you can keep such instances in check, be it in frequency or excessiveness, and if the Big 12 had targeted such behavior rather than placing “horns down” at the center of this new rule enforcement, it would have saved itself literal years of embarrassment and mockery.