Who knew that freedom of speech doesn’t extend to facial accessories?
OK, so the Bill of Rights doesn’t guarantee one’s ability to provide shoutouts during college football games by writing messages on eye black — those small, dark strips you see your favorite players wearing just above their cheekbones. And as history has shown, if the NCAA can deprive collegiate athletics of fun, it will do so at the first opportunity.
The NCAA Football Rules Committee proposed last week to ban college football players from putting any words, logos or symbols on their eye black, according to the Associated Press. It’s so long to hometowns, family members and mantras. The tributes were fun while they lasted.
This applies to USC, of course, because our own Reggie Bush is credited with starting the movement. Once the running back scribbled the “619” area code on his eye black to represent San Diego, everyone wanted to make a statement.
Rey Maualuga honored his late father in writing. Mark Sanchez could have filled a rolodex with the names he displayed after a season. Allen Bradford wrote “I promise” on his eye black to remind him of the guarantee he made to his father that he would make it to the NFL and provide a better life for the two of them.
Only the NCAA could look at all of these examples and somehow be offended.
Sure, eye black can also be a platform for controversial speech. Florida quarterback Tim Tebow used his face as a billboard for Bible verses this past season. And Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor wore eye black with a message supporting current quarterback and former convict Michael Vick, one of the sport’s most indefensible characters.
Advocates of the rule have cited a fear of what this practice could turn into, but is anyone really expecting a player to come trotting on the field with a four letter word written on his face or, better yet, an advertisement for BulkBeefJerky.com?
Former USC head coach Pete Carroll told the Los Angeles Times last September that he and the school’s equipment managers monitored the players’ messages and held the right to prevent any message from making it to the field. But apparently institutional control isn’t good enough for the NCAA.
What’s really sad about the proposed rule is that it provides yet another avenue for the NCAA to sap players’ joy from the game of football. Carroll’s team was special because it beat other teams and had fun doing it.
In the modern-day landscape of collegiate athletics, athletes have dwindling opportunities for self-expression. It’s easy to see why so many of them would embrace the chance to show appreciation or make a statement given how regimented their daily lives have became.
Some will argue that writing on eye black is the latest development in the generation of me-first athletes. But is anyone really offended by a short statement that will largely go unseen except on television? Until Tebow came along, writing on eye black was usually personal.
It’s really unfortunate that the NCAA sees fit to inject itself into the matter. If I weren’t graduating in May, I would protest by wearing eye black with my column name written on it whenever I went to the press box. But I guess I also don’t have the bone structure to pull off that look.
And I encourage anyone to look back into the eye black archives if they believe the practice isn’t entertaining. I couldn’t help but smile whenever I saw Brian Cushing with “FEEL ME” plastered across his face. And the most memorable recollection I have of USC’s 69-0 drubbing of Washington State in 2008 in Pullman, Wash., is USC wide receiver Ronald Johnson using his eye black to support Barack Obama’s campaign.
But somewhere at the NCAA headquaters in Indianapolis, there’s a group of curmudgeons who don’t see the humor. Maybe they’d lighten up if someone would just throw a shout-out their way via eye black every once in a while.
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