Out of the Park: Football third down bell unengaging, unnecessary

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COURTESY IMAGE // WM.EDU

Drenched in sweat, the William and Mary football team stares down its opponent. For two downs, the players blocked passes and prevented yardage gain successfully, and now they just have to make one more stop. The crowd waits for the next play, tense, until the Sir Christopher Wren Building Bell tolls to signify the start of the third down. Then, the crowd is supposed to start cheering. What actually happens is generally a tepid response, consisting of half-hearted “woos” and scattered clapping.

Seconds after the bell, the opposing team’s quarterback makes an arching pass to a wide-open receiver, earning 10 yards and a first down. Instead of deterrence, the third-down bell and lukewarm crowd have motivated the other team. They did not move on the first down; they did not make progress on the second. But when it mattered most on the third down, there were only a handful of times when they did not convert.

The bell tradition is perplexing. Though it is the only official consistent cheer to bolster student participation at football games, the Wren Bell is neither helpful nor particularly endearing.

First of all, the bell does not have the desired effect of pushing the Tribe to stop its opponent. The crowd’s lack of noise does not support the Tribe’s stop attempts. Statistically, the median third-down conversion rate of the top 130 colleges in the United States is 39 percent. Those teams are playing other top teams in their conferences, so it is expected that this rate is similar at all levels of play. The Tribe’s third-down conversion rate, for example, stands at 37 percent. However, the conversion rate of the teams playing against the Tribe is almost 10 percent higher than that of the Tribe, averaging a whopping 46 percent. The bell should signify that we are preventing a first down, but instead, the opposite is happening.

Is the Wren Bell cheer the reason behind the Tribe’s inability to prevent a first down? Not exactly. A statistical observation is far removed from claiming causation. However, even if the bell is not to blame for the problems on the field, it is certainly not helping.

Half of the time, the Tribe cannot stop the other team after the bell, so in addition to being useless, it also seems pointless. While the bell’s intention is not to improve athletic performance per se, it is supposed to energize the crowd. Instead, because of the team’s poor performance after the bell tolls, it lacks the seriousness to excite the students. Southern colleges are known for their emphasis on football culture, so the College’s approach to the sport — or lack of thereof — is strange. Though people do not flock to Williamsburg for its sports traditions, the College has an obligation to boost crowd support in some way. We have one officially sponsored cheer, the third-down bell, and it is not remotely relevant or fun.

The College thinks the only way to galvanize a crowd is an ineffective bell toll or, even worse, unrelated games. Every time Tribe Athletics brings a crowd member to the field to participate in a weird activity, something always goes wrong. The microphones do not work; the announcer starts before the kids have the grain sacks on; the T-shirt throwers miss the stands. For an official program, these activities are problematic. They do not serve the purpose of getting students interested in attending games. Worse, when something malfunctions, students lose interest in the game.

Student attendance is equally important as alumni, and the athletic culture of the College needs to reflect this. We want to be involved in the game and in cheering on our team, so the school should support this attitude with fewer fan interactions and more actual cheers and traditions that make us look forward to attending the games. Rally towel giveaways are perfectly fine, and the jumbotron graphics and clips could be improved, but these are not necessary to increase student participation; we just want an endearing cheer.

The apathy toward official cheers is especially perplexing because of the Colonial Athletic Association’s history with football. Five of the 10 schools in the CAA do not have football programs. Furthermore, because of low student attendance, Northeastern and Hofstra have terminated their programs in the last 10 years. Clearly, attendance and student support are important to football games, and the College needs to do its best to make sure the students stay involved at Tribe games. The College is not a big sports school — and it does not have to be known for its athletic atmosphere — but it has the opportunity and responsibility to improve the student turnout through better game traditions.

The pep band is a step in the right direction. The first-down tune is a fan favorite among freshmen and upperclassmen alike. The cheer is so popular because we are supporting our team — not belittling the other. In addition, the cheer happens throughout the game and celebrates the Tribe’s possession, which makes it especially entertaining.

The cheerleaders also excite the students. Their cheers are simple but effective, courting both the students and alumni over the course of the game. Signs and formations get students involved, and when the Tribe gets a touchdown, students look to the cheerleaders for a body-press counting feat. After a timeout or media break, the cheerleaders also help refocus the students on the game.

While the pep band and cheerleaders help student turnout, they are both ancillary programs. They are organizations who support the football team but are not necessarily sponsored by the team, unlike the third-down bell.

We do not need free towels or cups. Fun cheers, however, that both alumni and students can participate in are a necessity. Maybe that would take the form of an official kickoff chant. Perhaps it would be a touchdown cheer. It does not have to be repeatable, but it must make sense (unlike the golf putts). I do not know what the cheer should be, but I do know it should be fun, involved, effective and reflective of the Tribe’s performance — everything the Wren Bell is not.