I’ll be up front about this; I have a huge problem with Notre Dame football. I’m a self admitted hater, and fine with that knowledge. But, to be clear, my hatred isn’t necessarily the result the enormous front-running fan base, or even the fact that they are simply very very successful at football, though a few of those factors definitely figure prominently into the equation. At its core, Notre Dame football is nothing special. It has been built up over the years into some gilded idol of the sport, with a patina of tradition and respectability that turns it into an aspirational ideal. This is total bullshit.
Notre Dame has always figured prominently into the identity of American Catholics, and often for good reason; standing up to the Klan, providing a first-rate education for Catholics when many institutions of higher learning would close their doors to anyone with an “O’,” or a “Mc” in front of their last name, and leading the way on issues such as segregation and slavery. Understandably, this served as a rallying symbol for a lot of Catholics, a demonstrably important and influential icon for a community that was struggling to define its role in the early 20th century. Tying into this identity was the highly visible football program, which was immensely successful for Notre Dame in that same time period. Football teams, for better or for worse, are some of the most visible representations of a school, and Notre Dame was not only able to successfully challenge preconceptions about Catholics, they could also line up and beat the snot out your boys on the field as well. They were successful, and success attracts both positive and negative attention.
We’re going to skip ahead a bit here, to the 80’s. Notre Dame became the program that in many ways blended both the past and present; they still seemed to do things the “right way,” with the scepters of the Four Horsemen, Ara, Knute Rockne and the Gipper always hovering in the background. The “Catholics vs Convicts” games were pretty much the platonic ideal for hack sportswriters; the paragons of old-school virtue and hard-nosed football triumphing over the flashy, sleazy, criminal-seeming noveau riche hooligans. That sort of ethos has pervaded Notre Dame’s reputation ever since, even through a failure-filled two decades. Even though they weren’t winning, they’d always be relevant, they’d always be doing things the “right way,” they’d be Notre Dameno matter what. The football program transformed into something more than just a team, it was a symbol for what was “right” about college football, given some arbitrary and overly moralized definition that served as justification for elevating it to some preferred status.
But here’s the real dirty little secret: Notre Dame football isn’t special; it isn’t an example of doing the “right thing,” of playing football the way it should be played. Notre Dame football traded on the good reputation of the institution it was associated with, and like junk bonds repackaged and resold under AAA status, it’s just been covered up by a gold-tinted veneer that people are all too willing to buy into. Notre Dame has a history of player rape, of kids doing really stupid and even criminal stuff, of even the coaching staff and administrators disregarding safety and common sense, all under the banner of “Notre Dame Football.” This isn’t any different than, unfortunately, most of the other major college programs out there. Which is sort of my point; Notre Dame isn’t any more special or ideal just because they have a higher graduation rate, or some supposed moral high ground. Notre Dame is a football program, one with a lot of skeletons in the closet.
So please, spare me the “wake up the echoes” bullshit. Spare me the jerkoff sportswriters who will crow about Notre Dame being restored to its rightful place in the sun, the sanctimonious old codgers mumbling into their Cutty Sark about how things used to be, the Yankee fan in Skokie who just remembered where he left his Notre Dame hat (Hint: It’s on the sale rack at the WalMart down the street), all the wankery about doing things the right way. Notre Dame isn’t special, and we shouldn’t be “glad” they are doing well again. Network execs will continue to shell out massive sums of money to the school, people will tune in to Notre Dame games in record numbers, money will flow, season tickets will be bought, recruits will flock and the whole thing will keep spinning along as it always has. But not because Notre Dame is somehow special or “better” in anyway other than the one that ultimately matters to all interested parties on those cold fall Saturdays, on those bright scoreboard LEDs shining into the gloom. There’s going to be endless speculation in the coming weeks about what it somehow means that Notre Dame is back, that the Return to Glory may somehow be less transient than its past iterations, that things are finally as they should be once more. But, in the end, the only real significance is that a team won a few games, not that “right” somehow triumphed, or that we should all feel better in a world where Notre Dame is wining again. They are, after all is said and done, just another damn team. They aren’t the hero in some cosmic drama, nor are they the villain. There’s no higher meaning to a Notre Dame championship, just as there’s no lower meaning to Nick Saban winning one. (Well, maybe altimetrically speaking.) So on January 7th, one team is going to raise that crystal football. Nothing more, just a team. And man do I hope it’s not Notre Dame.