Notre Dame Football as a Platform for State Iconography

That’s not Touchdown Jesus between the uprights. Flyovers have become an exhilarating but unquestioned part of game day activities, calling into question the proper line between patriotism and militarism.  In the age of drone aircraft, one wonders as well whether fans and alumni would celebrate without skepticism unmanned fighter jet flyovers.  

In the fourth quarter of the Michigan State football game on September 17th South Bend Police Sergeant Tim McCarthy warmly incanted that physicians AND drivers are similar in that they both need patients.

If traffic safety requires patience, patriotism calls for reticence.

Following close losses to South Florida and Michigan, the convincing victory over MSU was welcome. But using the game to memorialize the tenth anniversary of 9/11 raised disconcerting questions.

From the fighter jet flyover to the flag waving musical selections such as God Bless the USA, the emotional programming ran thick. The information campaign continued awkwardly after the game under the roof of the Basilica where New York Archbishop Dolan surreptitiously appeared as guest celebrant and high priest of patriotism.  His presence endorsed the official narrative of the last ten years, and in his sermon he connected the events of 9/11 to the gospel reading.

Carrying out the 9/11 theme a week AFTER the anniversary (9/10 was an AWAY game) especially begged the question of motive and why ND had such a responsibility.

New developments continue to challenge the official narrative of the events of that day, calling for skepticism toward the interpretations and policies that have resulted. This September, 9/11 Congressional Joint Inquiry Chairman and former Senator Bob Graham entered new evidence into the public arena of the presence of multiple Saudi handlers in the country at the time of the attacks as well as a cover-up of such presence. On the 10th anniversary, pronouncements such as these raise non-trivial questions.  Could the FBI have taken different actions to stop the attacks?  Why did we invade Afghanistan when Saudi Arabia’s direct role had been known from the start?  One would expect the university’s programming choices to reflect new developments as history becomes more clear.

In an earlier post, I recalled ND President Fr. Hesburgh’s prescient warning in 1966 that ND football should be bounded by the proper “emphasis.” That constraint should seem to apply in regards to the extent to which the program is used to mass market political ideas to influence public opinion — public opinion in the stadium seats and in the millions of viewer homes.

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Student Indebtedness as a Planned Response from 1960’s

Noam Chomsky connects 1960’s student activism to the shackles of debt pressed on today’s university students.

“Elite sectors and centers of power want students to be passive and apathetic. One of the reasons for the very sharp rise in tuition is to kind of capture students. You know, if you come out of college with a huge debt, you’re gonna have to work it off. I mean, you’re gonna have to become a corporate lawyer or go into business or something. And you won’t have time for engaged activism. The students of the sixties could take off a year or two and devote it to activism and think, ‘Okay, I’ll get back into my career later on.’ Now, that’s much harder today. And not by accident. These are disciplinary techniques.”

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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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