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Wednesday, September 3, 2008
LIFE OF REILLY

By Rick Reilly

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!

At Virginia a new rule bans signs of any kind at all sporting events, including football and basketball.

Not advertising signs, of course. Not "Beer: $8" signs. Not "Give to the Virginia Scholarship Endowment" signs. No, only signs about Virginia teams, such as the one then third-year bio-medical engineering student David Becker held up at last year's Duke football game, which read, "Fire Groh!" That's Al Groh, the Virginia football coach who always manages to beat the Davids, but rarely the Goliaths.

"No signs," the gendarme told Becker in taking away the sign. Becker asked why. Nobody knew. So he made another sign, this time smaller, thinking maybe it violated some kind of size-limit rule. They took that one, too. Becker asked why again. "Word from the athletic department," the guard said. So he wrote "Fire Groh!" on a sheet of notebook paper. The guard took that, too, saying signs of a negative nature weren't allowed and that if Becker wanted to go for one more, he'd gladly pitch him out under an "exit" sign. THIS IS UN-AMERICAN. THIS ISN'T HAVANA. WHAT'S NEXT? NO YELLING? NO GRUMBLING? NO HEAVY SIGHING?

Now—no signs at all, pro or con. At Virginia! The nation's first secular university! Founded by Thomas Jefferson himself in 1819! Framer of the constitution! Champion of "certain inalienable rights," like free speech! The man who once wrote: "A little rebellion now and then is a good thing"!

Who, exactly, is Virginia protecting here? Groh? The man can handle himself. After all, he was once the head coach of the New York Jets.

"Seems odd," says former Virginia star and current Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber. "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."

I'll go farther than that. I've covered plenty of games where the only clever part of the game was the signs. College football without signs is like pretzels without salt. Who can forget these signs from last season?

"WE WANT A NEW CARR WITH LES MILES!"—Michigan fan

"KANSAS FOOTBALL: A TRADITION SINCE SEPTEMBER!"—Jayhawk fan

"IF YOU CAN READ THIS, YOU ARE NOT A CORNHUSKER"—Colorado fan vs. Nebraska

Or, my favorite sign of all time in any sport, from a Bruins game in the '70s: "JESUS SAVES AND ESPOSITO SCORES ON THE REBOUND!"

Virginia's athletic department says it instituted the policy to promote a "positive game-day environment." Ugh. Sounds like some $150/hour therapist wrote that one. Someone with tissues in all their pockets and a "Ban Dodge Ball" bumper sticker on their car. Whoever wrote it doesn't get this: 99% of sports signs are positive.

Can you imagine what Jefferson himself would've thought of this new jack-booted policy? True, he grew to rue freedom of expression a little toward the end of his life, since the press was hammering him on his long-time affair with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings. (This might be why, to this day, Virginia still doesn't have a journalism school.) But I ask you: What's the point of founding a free university if that university is going to tell its students what they can say?

For instance, how are Virginia students supposed to express themselves about the Cavs' 52-7 home opener loss to USC last Saturday? White T-shirts and Sharpies? Sign language? Hats worn at an angry angle?

"That's the thing," says Robert O'Neil, director of the Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, also in Charlottesville. "We don't quite know what constitutes a sign. Paint on someone's chest? A T-shirt? It's not quite clear."

One thing is clear. This is un-American. This isn't Havana. What's next? No yelling? No grumbling? No heavy sighing? How are students supposed to effect change at their school? Morse-code flashlights? And if they can censor students at the stadium, what's to keep them from doing it on The Lawn?

And if we're worried about a "positive game-day environment," shouldn't Groh be held to it, too? Remind me: What's so "positive" about 52-7?

This Saturday, the Cavs play Richmond and they'll be wearing special throwback jerseys. Seems superfluous. Virginia's already a throwback. To 1775.

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 60,00 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.


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