Last month, The University of Virginia athletic department notified students via email that “beginning this year, signs are not permitted inside athletics facilities.” The email went on to say “thank you for your cooperation,” but little else.
Students were naturally upset, questioning why there was no discourse among interested parties in advance of the decision and throwing around 1st Amendment references like they were plastic cups in the Scott Stadium student section circa 1994. Many pointed to the infamous “Fire Groh” sign created by engineering student David Becker last season at the Duke game. Becker, you may recall, had the sign taken away in the third quarter because it “violated venue policy” most likely because of its “derogatory” nature. The resilient E-schooler then made two more, smaller signs, only to have them taken away and be threatened with expulsion from the game.
One year later, word of the new policy spread like wildfire and drew loud criticism even at the national level, despite the fact that many schools – including VPI and JMU locally – have banned signs for some time. In an online column during the week leading up to the Richmond game, Sports Illustrated columnist Rick Reilly opened with the following prose:
“Do you miss Beijing? Are you pining for some good ol’ fashioned totalitarianism? Enjoy seeing any small voice squashed like a ladybug under a Hummer?
Then come to the University of Virginia!”
Reilly, who once had an alleged sexual assault by high school football players occur at his house, went on to quote 1762 William & Mary grad Thomas Jefferson (“Certain inalienable rights” and “A little rebellion now and then is a good thing”) and 1997 Virginia grad & onetime American Stock Exchange bell-ringer Ronde Barber (“Seems odd” and “You’d think if there was one university that would stand up for free speech, it’d be Virginia. When I was there, the signs were really clever”). At the end of the column, he had a suggestion for the oppressed:
“Here’s what Virginia students should do for every home game from now on: Bring signs that say nothing. Bring signs that say, “This Is Not a Sign.” Or bring 60,000 signs and let the athletic department goons try to sort them out.
Because sometimes rebellion isn’t just a good thing. It’s the only thing.”
Two days later, at kickoff of the Richmond game the student section was overflowing into what was an otherwise sparse crowd (as described by the DP, announced 51,0007). By mid game, students in both the stands and on The Hill were holding up blank sings en masse, prompting Channel 29 to do a feature on the “protest” which included nearly 5,000 blank signs handed out pre-game. Here’s the view from section 506:
This week, a Cavalier Daily editorial called the event “one of the most massive student protests in recent history” and reported that AD Craig Littlepage will meet with Student Council about the new policy. The paper discussed the possibility of further public protest and essentially called for the ban to be lifted. Columnist Robby Colby linked the magnitude of the issue to success of the team, saying that while “there is still time to right the ship, and precedent for it happening” if HC Al Groh & company “fail to provide even a little to excite students about the program, the discontent will simply continue to grow and find more creative and more embarrassing outlets.”
Groh’s official comment on the subject came prior to the Richmond game, when he said (in Groh-like fashion) “No feelings whatsoever. I didn’t read ’em when they were up, so I won’t miss ’em when they’re down . . . I’ve got enough things to deal with [other] than what’s on the signs and how many signs are up there.”
Tags: virginia football