Jonathan Clarke '91 | January 20, 2019
The moment before kickoff at Notre Dame Stadium, when the Fighting Irish are clustered in their narrow tunnel waiting to be released, is exciting when seen on television and positively thrilling when witnessed live. It is the crescendo of a carefully orchestrated symphony, containing elements both traditional and sacramental: the player walk down Library Quad; the kneeling pregame prayer; the ritual slapping of the “Play like a champion today” sign. When those massive young men flood onto the field in their gleaming golden helmets, coursing down channels once followed by coaches and athletes whose names are our collective inheritance, you cannot help but feel that something momentous is about to take place. Ancient verities of honor, courage and the spirit of play are invoked without irony. College football demands that we not be cynical about such things.
Yet for decades now, administrators, scholars, commentators and mere opportunists have questioned the growing role of sports in American higher education. The Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, CSC, the architect of the University we know today, was ambivalent about the beautiful and brutal game with which Notre Dame continues to be so strongly identified. He loved what it did for Notre Dame; he celebrated its victories; he feared the University might never escape its shadow.
Hesburgh, who served the University as president from 1952 until 1987, was founding co-chairman of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, whose first report, issued in 1991, acknowledged that “games and sports are educational in the best sense of that word because they teach the participant and the observer new truths about testing oneself and others, about the enduring values of challenge and response, about teamwork, discipline and perseverance.” Yet the same report warned that, “at their worst, big-time college athletics appear to have lost their bearings. With increasing frequency they threaten to overwhelm the universities in whose name they were established and to undermine the integrity of one of our fundamental national institutions: higher education.”
There is no elite school in America whose identity is yoked to sports in quite the same way that Notre Dame’s is. No other school has used athletics to lift itself to prominence in quite the way Notre Dame has, and no proper history of Father Sorin’s university would fail to reserve a chapter for Knute Rockne. If college sports are a devil’s bargain, no one has made a better deal than Notre Dame.
Read more here.