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Sports and the student voice
The pep band should be reinstated

By James Maxwell, Guest Viewpoint
Published: Monday, September 15 2008

AS HEADLINES spread the embarrassing antics of our athletic department, namely the new prohibition of signs at football games, I remain unsurprised. While last week, ESPN writer Rick Reilly decried the policy as “un-American” and an affront to free speech, I see no conspiracy to attack our First Amendment rights. This trouble is simply a symptom of deeper problems with our athletic department and today’s business-like college athletics.
I could say the athletic department shows a growing lack of respect for students, but this isn’t quite right either. Students aren’t any less valuable to them than they were 10 or 20 years ago, it’s just that the football team and its success is so overwhelmingly more valuable that we appear relatively worthless. How can the athletic department afford to have students actively and creatively involved in game day? With millions of dollars to be made and television cameras broadcasting any potential gaffes, game day now needs to be orchestrated by professionals, coaches and directors. This is a completely rational standpoint -- for a business.
The ever-marching erosion of student significance has already claimed victims; an early casualty of waning student control during game day was the Pep Band. Although our four-year institutional memory makes the Pep Band’s days on the field a rumor of the past, it was just over five years ago that this student voice during game day was silenced. Cast aside with trumped up charges of offensive jokes — albeit jokes that had been read and approved by the athletic department — the Pep Band had been tried and sentenced long before the infamous “Tire Bowl incident.” Ten years before, the athletic department attempted a similar coup, announcing the Pep Band’s student leadership would be replaced by an athletic department pay-rolled director. Back then, the students of the band rejected professional control, although perhaps 10 years later they would rue their choice to rebel. Yes, improbably the Pep Band prevailed in 1993, and they ushered back to the football field after a chorus of voices from the community and the national media bemoaned censorship at Mr. Jefferson’s University. But the athletic department’s need to control game day wasn’t changed.
The University has become a brand; a brand that is carefully managed and shaped by professional marketers. Sadly enough, if the University doesn’t fit their marketing plan, these people can change it. From sundresses and ties to the Pep Band to signs during the game to cheesy yearly football slogans borrowed from other sports teams, the athletic department exerts subtle as well as overt control over University traditions.
Students should define the University’s extracurricular character. The administration should be here to support the student community, not direct it. While my respect for the administration of the University and my belief of unencumbered student governance at the University left in 2003 with the Pep Band, my love for Mr. Jefferson’s University didn’t. Let the athletic department know that you love the University for its tradition, for its uniqueness and for its strong, independent student governance. Tell them to show respect for the student community by allowing it to voice itself freely at games. Ask, as Student Council has, to make room for the long-exiled student-governed band, so that sports like soccer and lacrosse can enjoy their musical support again. Remind the athletic department that the University is first and foremost a community of students, not a football franchise. In 1993 a clamor of voices set the athletic department straight; now it’s past time, as Rick Reilly suggests, for a little rebellion.

James Maxwell is a graduate student in the College and a former member of the Virginia Pep Band.

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