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November 15, 2002
Why does arms up signal a TD?
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Saleem Choudhry, researcher, Pro Football Hall of Fame: There's really no definitive answer. Shocking! I do have an educated guess, though. Hit me. At the end of a play, the ref puts one arm up to indicate the ball is down. Maybe putting two arms up means the ball is down and it's a score. But why? Well, maybe he's sharing in the joy the team feels. Hmmm.

Answer Guy

Bob Still, communications manager, National Association of Sports Officials: Our research indicates that both soccer and rugby use hands over the head to indicate a goal, so it must have started there.

Ed Hagerty, editor, Rugby Magazine: Rugby refs put one arm up and point a finger. Why? No clue. We don't pay much attention to stuff like this until someone asks. Story of my life, pal.

John Lane, director new business development, MLS: Our refs point to the midfield circle. Why? Because that's where the ball's going once they get it out of the net. Do the thrills ever end?

Kent Stephens, collections manager, College Football Hall of Fame: For a long time, there were no officiating symbols. Madness! People on the field knew what had happened, but spectators were in the dark. Been there. Ref symbols weren't included in the rule book until 1932, but we know they were around before then. And how do we know that? Well, for one, as early as 1920, Frank Birch, a referee in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, passed out cards to the press and coaches printed with a code of 12 gestures. Many are still in use, including arms extended upward to indicate a score. But why do arms extended upward indicate a score? Well, the most obvious answer is that the gesture mimics the goalposts, but that doesn't explain why it signals a touchdown. Exactly.

David B. Givens, director, Center for Nonverbal Studies: It's a universal gesture known as the "triumph display." What's it mean? Well, it's a subcortical movement, governed by the basal ganglia. Grunt? In other words, we don't think about it, we just do it. Like when chimps and gorillas jump up and down when they're excited. We've taken it a step further, extending our forelimbs. Crazy humans. So, raising the arms is effectively a truncated form of jumping for joy. The fix is in.

This article appears in the November 25 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

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