- The Washington Times - Friday, September 5, 2008

The free-speech advocates at UVa have questioned the administration’s decision to ban signs at all athletic events.

They evoke the name of Thomas Jefferson, the university’s founder, and suggest the push to civility is somehow un-American.

The free-speech defenders are wrong on this one. They are wrong because no one is stopping those armed with signs from making their point in countless other venues.

If they think Cavaliers football coach Al Groh should be fired, they can build a Web site dedicated to this task. And it would be a far more effective tool than a cardboard sign being held up in a football stadium.

Or they can stage a letter-writing campaign, directing literature attesting to Groh’s limitations to the local newspaper, to athletic officials, to administration officials and to fat-cat donors.

Or they can hold a rally, complete with chants of “Al must go!” They can do so many things that would fulfill their free-speech rights, and most would be far more persuasive than a silly cardboard sign that took a minute or two to complete.

News of the policy surfaced after student David Becker held up a “Fire Al Groh” sign during a game at Scott Stadium last season. He was told he would be escorted from the stadium grounds if he did not remove the sign because of a ban on signs deemed derogatory, inhospitable or impeding another spectator’s sightlines.

The ban was tweaked last month to include all signs, the good and the bad.

That seems fair enough, if not satisfying.

Free speech is a valuable right in America, even if it is often abused. You sometimes can read the seemingly most benign item on the Internet and then see it dissolve into political mudslinging in the comments section. This was an update on Hulk Hogan’s estranged wife, right? How did it then descend into a bizarre discussion on global warming?

It calls to mind a Mark Twain line: “It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.”

That sentiment is rarely observed these days as more and more Americans are ever certain about life’s uncertainties and too smug to see the richness in it.

The rush to send a message at college athletic venues is a long-standing pursuit, perhaps best put into practice at Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium, where the crazies often display wit with their chants, slogans and signs.

“Fire Al Groh” is hardly in that spirit. Or even fair to the coach.

It seems Groh’s greatest failing at Virginia is that he is no George Welsh. He is competent, just not stirring in leading the Cavaliers to five bowl games in seven seasons.

Passion, of course, is the sustenance of American sports, the passion sometimes stoked to manic levels in the 24/7 marketplace that seemingly never tires of talking all things sports. Sportsmanship has become one of the casualties of America’s sports obsession.

One of the remarkable sights of the Beijing Games last month was seeing the Chinese cheer both compatriots and foes alike. Their sportsmanship was especially evident in the U.S. romp over China in men’s basketball, with several of the dunks of the Americans eliciting the loudest cheers from the Chinese.

Rich Murray, a spokesman with the UVa athletic department, said the sign ban is designed to foster a friendlier atmosphere.

“The policy change is intended to support and promote sportsmanship in a positive game-day environment for all fans in attendance,” he said.

There is that word again, sportsmanship.

It is an antiquated notion in a culture that prays at the altar of in-your-face celebrity.

All too many athletes and fans are seemingly desperate to be noticed, sometimes provoking in whatever manner is necessary.

“Fire Al Groh” is hardly a freedom-of-expression issue. It is a question of taste and manners.

It is doubtful a sign-carrying fan would like to be sitting behind this obstruction.

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