(Opinion): Academics and Football: Notre Dame Traditions

by Rev. Edward A. Malloy, C.S.C.

In November 2002, the Oakland Raiders receiver Tim Brown, a 1987 Heisman Trophy winner at Notre Dame, told a Denver Post interviewer about racial tensions he had encountered as an African-American in Texas and California.p. “When we were in L.A. it was pretty bad,” he said. “I had people who lived next to me who never spoke to me, who if I came outside would run in their house, like I was the bogeyman.”

Tim then talked about his college life. “When I went to Notre Dame, most of my friends were white and Chinese, all different kinds of nationalities. I left Notre Dame saying, `Wow, the world is really a great place.’ But being in L.A. and even back home in Dallas can be very eye-opening.”

Race remains an issue that is rarely far from the surface of American life. This was proved again last week when another Irish Heisman winner, Paul Hornung, said Notre Dame should lower its academic standards “because we must get the black athlete if we’re going to compete.”

Fortunately, Paul has since apologized for the insensitivity of those remarks, but the furor on ESPN and the sports pages has unleashed a torrent of theories and occasional misinformation about Notre Dame and its football program.

A few facts follow:

A majority of our current team and our incoming class of freshman players is African-American. The current scholarship roster includes 34 African-Americans and 33 white players. In the class arriving late this summer, 12 of the 17 are African-American.

Though there is a perception that our academic standards make it difficult for athletes to succeed, the graduation rate for Notre Dame student athletes was recognized last fall by USA Today as the best in the nation at 92 percent. In standings announced by the N.C.A.A. last December, we ranked sixth in graduating African-American athletes (78 percent).

Also, no university had more former players— 40— in the National Football League last season than Notre Dame.

Yes, our football team had a 5-7 record last season, after going 10-3 the season before. Over the years we have had many great seasons and a few dismal ones.

It is true that we admit some promising athletes who would not gain admission on their academic credentials alone. But we will not admit any student who does not have the capacity to attain a legitimate degree with his or her class. In the past 30 years, our standards for “special interests” have remained constant while the academic profile of the student body as a whole has grown even stronger.

In the face of stiffer competition academically, we feel a moral obligation to see that our athletes get a quality education and a meaningful degree. To achieve this, we surround our student athletes with a support system for academics and life skills.

As a Catholic university in Indiana, we may not seem like a natural choice for many African-American students, but we have made progress toward greater diversity. Our overall minority population has grown to 17 percent from 12 percent in 1984. Last year’s incoming freshman class hit 20 percent, and this year’s will as well.

In my years as president of Notre Dame, we have emphasized the importance of greater racial and ethnic diversity. As someone who teaches an English seminar each semester, I can assert from my firsthand experience that the African-American students are not only well qualified, but they also enhance considerably the overall learning environment here.

The university is committed to excellence and success in all that we do. We dearly want to win consistently in football. It is a major part of our heritage and our tradition. During my four undergraduate years (1959-63), Notre Dame had the worst record in football in the team’s modern history. Critics were decrying our ability to succeed. Yet, we rebounded to win several national championships.

In Tyrone Willingham, we have a head football coach who represents the best of what intercollegiate sports is all about. He will continue to recruit outstanding athletes who fit Notre Dame.

It is noteworthy that our commencement speaker this spring will be Alan Page, an African-American from Notre Dame who is a member of the collegiate and professional football Halls of Fame. He will speak to our graduates as a member of the Supreme Court of Minnesota and as the founder in 1988 of the Page Education Foundation, which has provided educational opportunities for 1,885 young people from deprived backgrounds.

After a disappointing season in football, we are not far from success. We expect to win, and to send into the world more men and women who succeed like Alan Page and represent all Notre Dame stands for.

Rev. Edward A. Malloy has been president of the University of Notre Dame since 1987.

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