Students holding up blank signs in protest of the policy prohibiting signs Jason O. Watson

On the evening of Friday, Sept. 5, 2008, from their Lawn rooms, Zach Rowen (Col ’09, Law ’12), UVA baseball co-captain Andrew Carraway (Com ’09) and a group of others hatched their plan. It had been 17 days since an email to students from UVA’s athletics department had included the following guidance, causing an uproar on Grounds and in the national press: “Beginning this year, signs are not permitted inside athletics facilities.”

For students, the edict seemed to conflict with UVA’s core values of freedom of expression and student self-governance. And it was even more bewildering because students didn’t have a tradition of bringing signs to games. 

Earlier that week, as students considered how to respond and a home game with Richmond loomed, sportswriter Rick Reilly mocked the ban in his ESPN column and encouraged students to bring blank signs to home games. “I don’t remember reading that and then saying, ‘let’s all do this,’” says Rowen, then a Cavalier Daily sports opinion columnist. “But the seed was planted somehow, and it was probably indirectly from his column.” 

The group bought reams of 11x17 paper. Rowen typed up instructions, detailing when to hold up their blank pieces of paper—with 10 minutes and five minutes left in the first and second quarters.

He topped the instructions with a Thomas Jefferson quote: “I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.” There was a feeling that that quote, Rowen says, gave them cover against any repercussions as they set their plan in motion.

News of the protest spread through email discussion groups and word of mouth. Some students sneaked paper in their pockets or under their shirt. At the game, the group distributed the reams of paper, which Rowen had pushed into Scott Stadium through a gap, and shared the instructions. At the right moments, they’d run up and down the stairs signaling that it was time to raise the paper up. On cue, thousands did.

Fire Groh

Dave Becker (Engr ’09, Med ’13) figures the sign ban was his fault. A year earlier, Becker was miffed that UVA football coach Al Groh (Com ’66) was earning millions for a lackluster performance. The 2006 season ended with a 5-7 record, and the 2007 season began with a 23-3 loss against Wyoming. He brought a sign that said “Fire Groh” to the 2007 home opener.

As he entered Scott Stadium, an employee approached him. “He, unprovoked, said, ‘You all can have your signs as long as they’re not vulgar. They can say ‘Fire Groh,’” Becker says. “That was his own words. We didn’t ask.” 

Becker says he sat in the front row of the student section, holding up the sign along the wall and not obstructing people’s views. But later in the game, another Scott Stadium worker came over and, without a word, took the sign, ripped it up and walked away. He did the same when Becker held up a second “Fire Groh” sign. Then Becker wrote the message on a piece of paper.

“This time he came over with one of the cops who was down there and told us that it was coming from the athletic department, if we did it again, we were going to get arrested,” Becker says.

That ended that.

Out of step

The Groh sign incident triggered some discussion among students before they returned to the hum of fall semester. But behind the scenes in UVA’s athletic department, the conversation didn’t end. Rich Murray, then the associate athletics director for public relations, would later tell The Washington Post that talks about signs began in fall 2007.

Whether Becker started it all, then-Athletics Director Craig Littlepage can’t remember all these years later. But he does remember the questions from some longtime season ticket holders about visual obstructions and messaging on them.

“It is my recollection that my interest on this came as a result of hearing from fans that were just frustrated,” Littlepage says. “They wanted to support the team. They wanted to do everything they could to provide a great game experience. Many were longtime fans of the program and were sensitive to how prospects would react, how those that were close to the players would react, and so forth.”

The policy was intended, Murray told the Cavalier Daily, “to support and promote sportsmanship and positive game day environment for all fans in attendance at athletics events.” 

As the news spread, Matt Schrimper (Col ’10), then the Student Council president, began fielding dozens of emails from students. The rule felt out of step with UVA’s values, Schrimper says. “That, I think, caused a pretty significant grassroots groundswell of a response from across the student body.”

Not all wins

UVA won that papered-over Richmond game 16-0. The sign ban remained. Soon, students were planning the next protest—to wear blue, not orange as Groh had requested—at the next home game against Maryland on Oct. 4.

They also were pleading their case to administrators, including then-Dean of Students Allen Groves (Law ’90) and then-Vice President of Student Affairs Pat Lampkin (Educ ’86), who told students that it was up to Littlepage, Schrimper says. Students met with Littlepage too, just days before the Maryland game. Nobody budged.

Littlepage doesn’t have much memory about the meeting. But perhaps the students’ words—or their plans for a new protest—prompted him to do what he did within about a day: He lifted the ban, calling it a distraction. “Our football team needs our support right now and that should be our collective focus,” he said in a statement.

Today, Littlepage chalks up the episode to a learning experience. Considering the wishes of fans who supported the signs and those who didn’t, along with the impact on event staff who already were responsible for other crowd control and safety tasks, “it seemed that, in the end, that it was probably more of an irritant to having a ban on the signs than it was allowing the signs to exist,” he says. 

News of the repeal filtered out through word-of-mouth and email chains. “We felt vindicated,” says Kevin Dowlen (Com ’10), who was president of the UVA fan club, the Hoo Crew. And soon, everything went back to normal, including students not bringing many signs to games.