Nearly six weeks after the University of Virginia banned all signs at its sporting events -- including football and basketball -- the university abruptly switched course Thursday afternoon and rescinded its controversial no-sign policy.
UVa's athletics department announced in an Aug. 19 e-mail to students that it was banning all signs. "Beginning this year, signs are not permitted inside athletics facilities," it said. Thank you for your cooperation."
The sign ban came a year after UVa student David Becker was threatened with ejection from Scott Stadium because he was holding up a sign that said: "Fire [head football coach Al] Groh."
In the aftermath of the sign ban, however, outrage grew steadily over what many Cavalier fans perceived as an infringement on their right to voice their opinions at a university founded by Thomas Jefferson.
At the UVa football team's game against the University of Richmond on Sept. 6 an estimated 5,000 students in the stands of Scott Stadium held up blank sheets of paper -- as in, not technically signs -- to protest the policy.
A second protest of the sign ban was being organized for Saturday's home game against the University of Maryland. In that planned protest, dubbed the "power of students night," many fans promised to wear blue T-shirts rather than the university's preferred orange T-shirts. The protest also called for Cavalier fans to abandon their official orange gameday T-shirts by placing them in collection bins to be sent overseas to needy people.
"Stand up: Wear blue at Saturday night's game," urged a protest announcement Wednesday from UVa's Student Council. "If you don't have blue, anything but orange will do."
Amid all the fury, UVa Athletics Director Craig Littlepage continued to defend the no-signs policy. As recently as Wednesday, Littlepage defended the ban, saying it promoted a "positive gameday environment."
Yet on Thursday, Littlepage released a new written statement that announced he was rescinding the sign ban, saying it had become too much of a distraction.
"The policy prohibiting signs, banners and flags in all UVa athletics venues has become a distraction and has taken the focus away from supporting our student-athletes," he wrote. "Our football team needs our support right now and that should be our collective focus. With that in mind, I am repealing immediately the policy prohibiting signs, banners and flags in all athletics venues. I encourage all of our fans to be in attendance at Saturday's football game with Maryland. My hope is our fans will wear orange and be prepared to support the Cavaliers."
Littlepage's flip-flop on the sign ban drew kudos from some fans on various UVa football focused blogs and message boards.
"I feel like a winner today," wrote one. "Mr. Jefferson, we got the signs back! WAHOOWAH!"
The fans' protests of the no-sign policy seemed to be behind the decision to lead to the overturning of the ban, said John W. Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute, a Charlottesville-based nonprofit organization that aims to protect constitutional and human rights.
"All those who have engaged in staging creative protests should be encouraged and also commended for their efforts," said Whitehead. "This is a timely reminder of the power of the people to speak out and bring about change."
UVa is not the only university in Virginia that has sought to ban signs. Virginia Tech and James Madison University do not allow signs at athletics events, while Virginia Commonwealth University and the College of William & Mary do not have a policy regarding signs.
Rich Murray, spokesman of UVa's athletics department, declined to say what led to Littlepage's decision to allow signs.
"All I can say is what is there in his statement," Murray said. "It had become a distraction."
The UVa football team's record for the season is 1-3. The team is considered one of the most lackluster in the NCAA, ranked last in scoring offense, 118th in total offense and 98th in scoring defense.
Becker, the student who held up a "Fire Groh" sign last year, said that he is happy that signs will be back at UVa's football and basketball games.
"The repeal of the sign ban is obviously great news for students," he said. "It goes to show how far the power of protest can take you. I can't wait to bring positive signs back to Scott Stadium and the John Paul Jones Arena."