For years, West Virginians have made celebratory couch-burning a tradition unlike any other in college sports. This season, it's more true than ever, in that it's the only tradition that can get its practitioners put behind bars.
Previously, igniting a piece of old furniture to commemorate a Mountaineer win was classified as a violation of the misdemeanor malicious burning ordinance, carrying a mandatory $1,000 fine. Now, city officials in Morgantown want to "take a more serious approach," upgrading the offense to third and fourth-degree state arson as a stronger deterrent. Under that designation, a conviction could carry one to three years in prison.
And you'll never guess who the primary offenders are:
At the same time, the city, WVU, private property owners and others are collaborating on a public awareness campaign targeting what [police chief Ed] Preston says is the typical offender — a white male, 18 to 22 years old and usually intoxicated.
"If someone throws a bag of trash in the street and sets it on fire, they're looking at a $1,000 fine," Chief Preston said. "If they set a Dumpster on fire, they're looking at a third-degree arson charge and one to three years in prison.
"For years people have said, 'It's dangerous,' " he said. "Now, it's dangerous and there are serious consequences."
If it's effective, the new laws will make the current caché of West Virginia couch-burning videos floating around the web a sort of national treasure, an archive of a particular time and place and tradition of borderline anarchy. And while the blazes set in the wake of the Mountaineers' triumph in the 2010 Big East basketball tournament may be the first spark (zing!) that comes up in a YouTube search for "West Virginia couch burning," the act isn't limited to sports celebrations: On the night Osama bin Laden was killed earlier this year, Morgantown firefighters reported 22 street fires in the subsequent melee.
Of course, you can probably still get away with igniting a couch in your backyard and quietly singing the school fight song. Just make sure the neighbors aren't Marshall fans.