NPR: Notre Dame feels the pull between pigskin and academics

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My, my, my. The echoes certainly have been waked up again in South Bend.p. Notre Dame came from behind to win again Saturday, and now, under a new coach, Tyrone Willingham, the Irish have won their first four games and, after two desultory seasons, are back in the top 10 and pointing toward another bowl.

When Notre Dame wins, everybody pays attention. Well, so does everybody pay attention when Notre Dame loses. The Irish are the only team in the country — college or pro, any sport — with a national television contract. The Irish are video champions of America. Notre Dame is also the only football school of any consequence which doesn’t need to be in a conference. Why bother? Long before the Dallas Cowboys proclaimed themselves America’s Team, Notre Dame could fairly claim that distinction. It was football that brought the little Catholic college in Indiana to prominence almost a century ago, and it is football that still overshadows what has become a genuinely fine institution of learning.

Indeed, the battle for Notre Dame’s soul continues — and, to the university’s credit, that duel between academics and the ol’ devil pigskin is carried on publicly. By coincidence, just as this happy football season began, Notre Dame Magazine published an article by Richard Conklin, who recently retired as an associate vice president for University Relations. The article was titled “Can the Fighting Irish Excel at School and at Play?” and Mr. Conklin addressed the issue for the whole university community, writing: “Notre Dame is a high-wire act in American intercollegiate athletics, and the sport carrying the balancing pole is football.”

Other top private schools and the service academies have to wrestle with the same dilemma, but not even Duke and basketball compares to Notre Dame and football. Never mind tradition. How many colleges make as much money off a single sport as Notre Dame does off football, which helps the athletic department to a profit of millions a year?

But the price of success at South Bend also now includes an ugly booster scandal and a nasty rape case involving several football players. Moreover, as at so many universities, the difference between the SAT scores of the average student and the football player widens. Can schools like Notre Dame and Duke really afford such a blatant class system?

On the other hand, Notre Dame football players don’t major in Recreation courses where they learn how to run a pool hall (as I once had a State U. All-American explain his course of study to me). Math and language requirements eliminate a lot of Irish prospects. Graduation rates remain high.

Of course, going back to the Ivy League of the nineteenth century, American colleges have convinced themselves that football is so important to the campus and the alumni that an ounce of hypocrisy is worth a pound of prestige. Only sometimes does it get too painful. Great universities like Duke, Northwestern and Vanderbilt are often gridiron laughing stocks. It’s gruesome to see Army and Navy -our military incubators - virtually unable to beat anybody but each other. Is it really that important to field a big-time football team?

Notre Dame, of course, has no choice. At least symbolically, football is as important to the Golden Dome as is Catholicism. But just how monstrous the football giant has become is revealed when even Notre Dame must at least dare pose the question to itself: Can we have it both ways? It would be healthy if every college did the same.

Sports Illustrated senior contributing writer Frank Deford is a regular contributor to and appears each Wednesday on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition. He is a longtime correspondent for HBO’s Real Sports and his new novel, An American Summer (Sourcebooks Trade), is available now at bookstores everywhere.

September 25, 2002

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