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At around kickoff time of Gallaudet’s scheduled home game with the Williamson Free School of Mechanical Trades, the bleachers and grounds of Hotchkiss Field were empty. The only noise inside the stadium came from the wind-indicator flags banging against the top of the shiny new goal posts in each end zone.
The game had been called off because of the campus unrest. Yet the football team had a large presence nearby.
“I wish I was playing the game,” says Calvin Doudt, a sophomore linebacker, through an interpreter as he stands among a few hundred students and sympathizers camped out by the Florida Avenue NE entrance to the campus. “But I’m not ready to play. I haven’t eaten a meal in three days. I haven’t slept. I have to do this.”
By “this,” Doudt meant protest the ascension of Jane K. Fernandes to the school’s presidency.
Doudt and many of his Bison teammates took a leave of absence from football and jumped into the demonstration against the president-elect when it kicked into overdrive last week and shut down the campus, and they were still hanging in a day after the mass arrests were ordered by the Gallaudet administration. Doudt was one of the more than 100 protesters hauled off by D.C. cops at the behest of school administrators for failing to obey an order to unblock an entrance to the campus.
Near the back of the protesters sits the bass drum on wheels that for decades banged out the snap count for the team and was the preeminent symbol of Gallaudet football. The big blue drum was put out of action last year when the team installed a new offensive scheme that replaced the drumbeat with visual triggers, including the use of American Sign Language (“Beats Losing,” Cheap Seats, 12/23/05).
But protesters brought the drum back out of the closet and used it to signal a call to arms early in the demonstration. On this day, however, the drum was silent, its big face having been smashed the previous night by an overzealous pounder.
The prominence of the football drum and players at the protest was fitting, since the football program had been at least indirectly involved in some of the key events that have caused students to despise Fernandes. The goal posts at Hotchkiss Field were new, for example, because the old ones were torn down a year ago during a campus gathering that both celebrated the football team’s 9-0 season—the first undefeated season in the school’s gridiron history, which dates back to 1883—and bashed the Gallaudet administration for, among other things, not paying enough attention to the team’s successes.
Fernandes, who in her job as the school’s provost took it upon herself to make an example of the miscreants, came down hard on those she blamed for the goal-post melee. Among those blamed was Doudt, a captain of this year’s team. Doudt says Fernandes made a lot of enemies during that investigation.
“I had nothing to do with tearing down the goal posts. I was not there when they were torn down. But I was charged with tearing them down,” says Doudt, who earned honorable-mention status on the Washington Post’s All-Met squad when he played prep ball for the Maryland School for the Deaf. “Of the 12 people punished, 10 were football players. That showed a bias against the team.”
Doudt was forced to perform 20 hours of community service and pay a $50 fine. He says he had only become aware of Fernandes and how she did her job in the week before the goalposts were torn down. After the team’s 2006 homecoming, at parties thrown at a downtown hotel, a group of Gallaudet students pulled fire alarms and generally behaved drunkenly. When Fernandes was informed of the misbehavior, she sent out a campuswide memo that she was going to investigate the incidents and intended to dole out punishments.
“What happened [at the hotel] was sad, that Gallaudet was misrepresented by the [revelers],” says Doudt. “But it was done by a few students, not everybody at Gallaudet. The provost really did get out of hand. Jane Fernandes didn’t realize it wasn’t the entire campus that did this. Her actions were very heavy-handed. That was when she provoked a lot of people.”
Soon enough, Doudt says, T-shirts with Fernandes’ likeness and the message “Know Thy Enemy” popped up on campus. Those shirts have been the favored attire of those involved in the current protest.
During the last off-season, Fernandes tried to patch up relations with the football team and, by association, the rest of the student body. The school announced earlier this year that, what with the grand accomplishments of the 2006 team, the football program would return to a full NCAA Division III schedule in 2007 after years of playing as a club sport. The official announcement began by saying the support of the school’s administration—“especially President designate Jane K. Fernandes”—made the football program’s upgrade possible. (The administration also hoped to have Fernandes jump onto the women’s volleyball team’s bandwagon in the early days of the current protest, posting a short video on the school Web site that showed her in the grandstands rooting on the team as it won the inaugural Worthington Classic, a tournament held in the Gallaudet gym. The movie reveals no hint that students had already taken over a nearby administration building and were still holding it as Fernandes watched the Oct. 8 sporting event. She could not be reached for comment.)
In an interview conducted Oct. 6, the day the students started the protest by taking over a building, Ed Hottle, Gallaudet’s second-year football coach, said he felt Fernandes’ support for his program was genuine.
“The administration is behind the program now, definitely,” Hottle said. “I hope that whatever the mood or atmosphere on campus is, that the team can help heal whatever wounds there are. But, really, the politics of this stuff, I try to be involved with that as little as possible.”
However, football and campus politics have been impossible for Hottle and everybody else at Gallaudet to separate lately. Just as the protest was getting under way, the Bison traveled to Worcester, Mass., to face Becker College. The team lost, 18-15, when an injury to the kicker late in the game took away the Bison’s chance to kick a field goal and send the game into overtime, and the offense came up 6 inches short on fourth down from Becker’s six yard line as the clock ran out. That ended Gallaudet’s 13-game winning streak.
Neither Doudt nor Hottle blame their first loss on the goings-on in D.C.
“We just didn’t play well,” says Hottle.
The coach didn’t advise his players whether to join or avoid the protests upon their return to campus. Doudt says, however, that a pep talk that Hottle gave the team has helped him persevere through the lack of sleep and food and the jail time.
“Coach told me that if I start something, I have to finish it,” Doudt says. “I have to finish this.”—Dave McKenna