Fr. Hesburgh’s Warning on College Football

Hesburgh’s words, as excerpted from Sports Illustrated, Dec. 12, 1966, describe college football in terms of social justice and equality of opportunity.  In beautifully crafted prose, he placed spiritually and ethically-based  limits around the game.  I believe his framework is relevant today and illuminates a need for introspection by fans, players, and schools alike. 

“…So another football season passes, with all its very real excitement, effort, hope, youthful optimism and ultimate success, the national championship. You have lived with it and through it. The cheers all fade away into the dusk. The tissue-draped trees and lawns are cleaned up again for the last time. We return to the real and hard world of books, quizzes and work yet to be done before the Christmas vacation begins. The stadium, stark and silent, is etched against a gray, wintry sky. Close by, the library beckons with its myriad lights.

Was it all worthwhile, in this time and in this place? I think so, if we see the deeper meaning of it all. Reality is enriched by fantasy, if fantasy is allowed to illuminate reality, but not to engulf it.  In another age, as harsh as our own, there were jousts and jesters, tournaments and trials of skill and strength to lighten the harshness and illumine the lessons of life. A football season has all the same qualities for our day. Life would be dull indeed without these interludes which, in their own mid-20th-century American way, can explain life to us, make it more deeply understandable and, therefore, livable.

I say all of this in the face of those who, in a seemingly superior intellectual fashion, depreciate, denigrate and deplore the football season in our land. Collision on the gridiron is still better, I believe, than violence in the streets. Both have their own relationship to equality of opportunity in the United States, one positive and one negative.

I would hope that in the larger university community in the United States we might see the football season, with all its appeal to young and old alike, in the perspective of a larger meaning of learning, and education, and life.  The football season can, of course, be overdone, wrenched out of all perspective, so that even the fantastic becomes the phantasmagoric, as is done by prolonging the season unduly, indulging in an increasing orgy of bowl games, the psychedelic dreammakers of collegiate football.

Kept within proper bounds of time, place and emphasis, I believe strongly that the football season is indeed worthwhile.  The noise is ephemeral and does die away. The display, the spectacle, the color, the excitement linger only in memory. But the spirit, the will to excel and the will to win perdure. These human qualities are larger and much more important than the passing events that occasion them, just as the ebb and flow of all our daily efforts add up to something greater and more enduring if they create within each one of us a person who grows, who understands, who really lives, who does not merely survive, but who prevails for a larger, more meaningful victory in time and, hopefully, in eternity as well.”

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