Celebration etiquette reaches new low in San Diego

Let's get the preliminaries out of the way:

• First, scripted on-field celebrations have become the lamest, most exhausted, least meaningful act in professional sports.

• Second, the loser of a big game forfeits the right to get truly hot under the collar about what the winning team does, no matter how stupid it looks.

And so, putting these together, we arrive at the following conclusions:

    1. The Patriots acted like kids celebrating a Little League win on Sunday;
    2. It never looks any better no matter who's doing it; and
    3. The Chargers are just gonna have to shut up about it.

But let's not lose sight of the larger picture, which is that the on-field stunt has finally and forever lost its zest. I trace this inexorable decline back to the moment that Terrell Owens ran to midfield in Dallas and stood on the Cowboys' star in the middle of a game which Owens, at the time, had no idea whether his 49ers would go on to win or lose. This of course, is followed closely by the Sharpie Incident, just a classic T.O. look-at-me-and-keep-looking moment, fully planned and choreographed -- the worst of sportsmanship in one fell swoop.

There are scads of other examples, from Joe Horn's CellphoneGate right on through, although the real devaluation of the act has come from its random use -- the guy woofing it on the 37-yard line after making a tackle in the fourth quarter of a game his team is losing by three touchdowns. You know the guy. You've seen him in just about every uniform in the league.

The culture of Me-dom has certainly always had a place even in a team setting, but you have to think that Ickey Woods might not have imagined that his Shuffle would beget such a generation of narcissists and self-lovers -- that something basically conceived for fun would become the national turnoff that it is becoming.

Let's be clear about Sunday. What the Chargers (LaDainian Tomlinson in particular) got so angry about was Patriots players doing a mocking version of the dance that Shawne Merriman does every time he records a sack -- which is to say, the Chargers felt disrespected by someone doing an imitation of something that can be viewed as disrespectful every single time Merriman does it.

I'm not saying that's right; I'm saying that's how it is. Granted, the whole thing looks worse coming from the Pats, a team you're always hoping will know better, but New England is just Exhibit B here. Exhibit A is a San Diego squad that blew an eight-point lead in the fourth quarter and then felt like barking afterward.

First rule of the field: When you give up the late lead and let it all slip away, you surrender your voice. I respect Tomlinson as much as I do any player in the NFL, but when he came out with, "They showed no class, and maybe that comes from the head coach," he sounded like a wounded guy yelping out his frustration in a manner he'll regret a week from now. This would have been an almost perfect time for LT to remain the top-shelf individual he has been, rather than roll in the muck. That's the heat of the moment for you.

Tomlinson struck a nerve, though. Bill Belichick's national image took a dip two weekends ago, when he boorishly shoved a camera backward into the face of a Boston Globe photographer while blasting through the media scrum to meet the Jets' Eric Mangini after the game.

Now Belichick's team, a three-time Super Bowl entry, comes off looking like it's so shocked to win a playoff game that it barely knows what to do. Again, I don't think the Chargers have any room to bray here -- they blew the thing. But since when do the Pats go ape at midfield after a conference semifinal? What happened to the part about acting like you've been there before?

Now, it's easy to say all this in the pressure-free comfort of the living room. It ain't so simple on the field. Sports are inherently and violently emotional acts. No one who has ever played on a team at any level doesn't understand that. But what used to separate the pros from the amateurs was the notion that the pros knew better than the chumps how to win (or lose) without devaluing themselves. Well, there's always next week.

Mark Kreidler's book "Four Days to Glory: Wrestling With the Soul of the American Heartland" will be published by HarperCollins on Jan. 23. It can be preordered on amazon.com. Kreidler, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mkreidler@sacbee.com.