LAST THURSDAY NIGHT at UCLA, several college football players again violated rules of civility. "I was trying so hard not to make a mistake," explained defensive lineman Matt Dickerson, "but I did butter my whole bread roll instead of tearing off a piece and just buttering that."
"There were a couple of times I brought my face to my food when I should have brought my food to my face," admitted defensive back Jaleel Wadood. "I like bringing my face to my food."
"I had to go to the bathroom and I left my napkin on my seat," confided linebacker Kenny Young. "I know I was supposed to leave it on the table." Impropriety on campus continues. "I'm going to work on this," Young added. "It was just my first etiquette dinner."
Forget bonfires and pep rallies. Nothing screams rivalry week like 15-piece table settings, and before some UCLA players could master the game plan for USC this week, they had to study the proper placement of the charger plate—not to mention the mystic purpose of the charger plate. "My mom taught me a lot about manners," Dickerson said, "but I totally blanked on where the soup bowl goes." Dickerson redeemed himself, however, with stellar salad-fork positioning.
Welcome to UCLA football's eighth annual Etiquette Dinner: bow ties on, cellphones off, salt and pepper passed from left to right and in tandem. "I just thought if you wanted some salt, you asked for some salt," said defensive lineman Takkarist McKinley. The evening, which is attended by freshmen and transfer players, kicks off with an hourlong crash course in decorum conducted by associate athletic director Ashley Armstrong and colleague Ric Coy. They break down everything from firm handshake mechanics to disciplined cologne application to efficient napkin dabbing, using a projector not unlike coach Jim Mora's. Some of the instructions are basic (stand when greeting a guest), others advanced (when eating soup, guide the spoon away from your body as you scoop).
Players then apply what they've learned over a four-course white-tablecloth dinner with prominent faculty and alumni. "Let's not stab the cherry tomatoes and croutons," cautions Armstrong. "That's a scene waiting to happen." Legends are made here (quarterback Brett Hundley is still remembered for the resplendent three-piece suit he rocked three years ago), and so are examples (former defensive tackle Brian Price famously tucked his napkin into his collar). "If you need a bib," Coy advises, "you should probably order a different meal."
Who says gentility is gone from college football? At Table 3 defensive back Ron Robinson carefully stows a discarded sugar packet under his saucer. Offensive lineman Kolton Miller politely requests a moment to chew when asked a question midbite. Wide receiver Austin Roberts pauses with a carafe of balsamic vinaigrette before sending it counterclockwise around the table. Conversation topics range from house-friendly pets to critically acclaimed films. No one mentions the A-gap. "USC is playing Cal right now," Robinson notes. He resists the burning temptation to check the score on his phone.
UCLA has 750 penalty yards this season, 12th most in the FBS, but Pac-12 referees might have a different perspective if they dined with the team. After soup and salad, chicken and pasta, cheesecake and strawberries, the refined members of Table 3 rise to mingle. Used utensils are lined up on their plates in precise parallel formation. If only Peggy Post were on the playoff committee, the 8--2 Bruins might have a decent shot.
These lessons resonate long after rivalry week. "You need it the first time you go to dinner with your girlfriend's family," says sophomore receiver Thomas Duarte. "And you need it every time you go to lunch for a job interview," adds former linebacker Reggie Carter. Outside the Athletics Hall of Fame, the Bruin Bear statue is boarded up, having been spray-painted by uncouth USC fans. The UCLA diners are left to lament the loss of courtesy in college football.
There is only one appropriate way to defend the proud bear's honor: Carve up the Trojans with butter knives.
UCLA players are coached in good manners as well as in good football. First lesson: "If you need a bib, you should probably order a different meal."
How else do teams prepare college athletes for real life?
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ANN JOHANSSON FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED