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There’s no real rule against Horns Down

What’s the real violation here: taunting, or making one of the sport’s most powerful schools feel slightly sad?

When someone does something good against Texas, the only natural thing to do is to celebrate by taking the Hook ’em Horns hand signal and turning it upside down. Many players have done the Horns Down in the past and not been penalized.

But by at least 2017, it was a penalty. That continued in 2018, when it was called twice in one game against West Virginia, one of those times on a game-winning score.

Joining Oklahoma, Arkansas, and other classic UT rivals, West Virginia — players, coaches, and fans — has since co-opted the Horns Down as a generic symbol for use in games not even involving Texas, all despite the Big 12’s disapproval.

The Big 12 has not been totally clear about the issue.

This was commissioner Bob Bowlsby before Oklahoma and Texas played 2018’s conference title game ...

... and this was the Big 12’s officiating head at 2019’s conference media days:

‘Like any play, there is a degree -- who it’s directed at,’ Burks said Tuesday at Big 12 media days at AT&T Stadium. ‘If they do it in their bench area, we’re not going to look at it. It would be like any other celebration foul, so it has to be like any other foul we have. Does it rise to the level we need to deal with that? It’s a hot topic.

‘I know people want us to be definitive on that, but it’s like any touchdown celebration. Is it directed at an opponent or just celebration with your teammates?’

Whatever happens, there’s no reason Horns Down has to be a penalty.

Let’s go through the NCAA’s whole entire list of “unsportsmanlike acts” and see if we can figure out why the Big 12 sometimes thinks Horns Down is a felony.

Pointing the finger(s), hand(s), arm(s) or ball at an opponent, or imitating the slashing of the throat.

That’s not a Horns Down at all.

Taunting, baiting or ridiculing an opponent verbally.

Firstly, who said the Horns Down is a taunt?

Secondly, the Horns Down is not verbal. The lack of an Oxford comma makes it unclear whether the rulebook is banning verbal taunts, verbal baiting, and verbal ridiculing, or all taunts, all baiting, and verbal ridiculing. Absent a judge weighing in on the meaning of the statute, it seems like a violation of due process to give players penalties for this act.

Inciting an opponent or spectators in any other way, such as simulating the firing of a weapon or placing a hand by the ear to request recognition.

I Googled the definition of “incite” and it said that means to “encourage or stir up (violent or unlawful behavior).” If a Horns Down is “incitement,” that’s because the Texas fans in attendance are willing to get violent over a hand signal. Seems more like a personal issue. At that point, it’s on law enforcement to get involved, not an officiating crew.

Admittedly, this, from the WVU game, is not allowed:

But a standalone Horns Down? No, sir.

Any delayed, excessive, prolonged or choreographed act by which a player (or players) attempts to focus attention upon himself (or themselves).

Is a Horns Down “choreographed?” No more than putting a single finger up in the air to say “We’re #1.” Nobody would ever call a penalty for that. The Horns Down isn’t something you “choreograph.” It’s a heartfelt gesture.

“I just thought, you know, it’d be cool and it’d be funny for me to do that, and it’d sort of get the crowd into the game,” one Horns Downs’ing receiver told me a few years ago.

An unopposed ball carrier obviously altering stride as he approaches the opponent’s goal line or diving into the end zone.

This is not a Horns Down.

A player removing his helmet after the ball is dead and before he is in the team area

Wholly irrelevant to the Horns Down discussion.

Punching one’s own chest or crossing one’s arms in front of the chest while standing over a prone player.

Still not related at all.

Intentionally removing the helmet while the ball is alive.

Certainly not.

Dead-ball contact fouls such as pushing, shoving, striking, etc. that occur clearly after the ball is dead and that are not part of the game action.

Again, no.

After the ball is dead, using forcible contact to push or pull an opponent off the pile.

Nope. And that’s it.

Unsportsmanlike conduct is about context. Given the controversy Horns Down has created, one could argue the regular Hook’em is now taunting, too.

Are the Big 12’s officials going to penalize Texas for throwing the Horns Up? It kind of seems like throwing an inverted Horns Down is a deliberate sign of disrespect not just to whomever the Horns are playing, but to West Virginia, which has decided the Horns Down is its beloved university hand sign.

The conference could continue to penalize harmless hand signs. Or it could just relax, and these benign gestures could not turn into game-altering penalties.