Why the only thing I hate more than Notre Dame football is the MYTH of Notre Dame football.
Let me start off by dispelling any notion that this is an objective column, or any sort of detached analysis of Notre Dame. I am not a disinterested third party and I'm certainly not objective. I unapologeticly, unequivocably and unconditionally hate Notre Dame football.
To be precise, I've hated them since the evening of January 2, 1989. That night the Fighting Irish defeated my West Virginia Mountaineers in the Sunkist Fiesta Bowl for the national title. The history books will have you believe Notre Dame won that game because they were the best team in the nation that season. Not quite. More likely they won when WVU suffered a parade of injuries, most notably superstar QB Major Harris, who injured his throwing shoulder on the third offensive play of the game and was ineffective for the rest of the day. I was crushed as a 9 year old, but I digress.
Around this same time I began to notice something else. Notre Dame was discussed by the national media with a certain reverence, like they were doing things different than everyone else. They were admired, complimented...downright revered. It was explained to me that they had a rich tradition of honor and high standards. This was the Notre Dame football that everyone kept telling me was so damn special.
At the same time, I was devouring books like "The Football Hall of Shame" and "Strange But True Football Stories," fascinated by these histories of the game that stretched back to the early days of the twentieth century. What I found in my marathon reading sessions was a very different Notre Dame than the one TV networks and pundits were trying to sell me. The golden image of Notre Dame football that I was provided by the contemporary sports media was a stark contrast to the Notre Dame I came across in books of football past. I learned things like this:
- In 1935, in the midst of hosting the visiting Southern California Trojans, the Irish marching band took matters into their own hands, creating an elongated halftime set without sharing that knowledge with the Trojans. As the Irish launched into a tribute to a player who had died before the season (actually playing it TWICE) the respectful visitors shivered at attention. The home team, in on the ruse, warmly huddled on its sideline. A halftime deficit magically turned into a second half comeback.
- The great Knute Rockne once outright lied to his team to get them to play harder. Before a 1922 game against powerhouse Georgia Tech in Atlanta, Rockne read them a telegram, purportedly from Rockne's "critically ill" son Billy, who had supposedly sent said telegram from the hospital: "I want daddy's team to win." Win they did, beating Tech 13-3. Imagine the player's surprise when a perfectly healthy Billy met them at the train station upon their return to South Bend. Rockne had sent the telegram himself.
- The Irish put on one of the most shameful displays of game conduct in all of college football history when they actually faked injuries to stop the clock at the end of BOTH halves in a 1953 game against the Iowa Hawkeyes. In a play they had actually rehearsed in practice, as the first half was winding down Irish tackle Frank Varrichione suddenly flopped to the ground, causing an injury timeout as he was carried off the field. Notre Dame scored to tie the game at 7 on the next play - a play only made possible by the clock stoppage. They repeated the shenanigans at the end of the game as once again they faced a final drive out of timeouts. This time several Irish flopped at the same time and the clock stopped again. Last play of the game - touchdown Irish.
This wasn't the rich Notre Dame that talking heads deified as they bloviated on things like "honor" and being held to a "higher standard." In fact, if I didn't have the entire sports universe trying to convince me otherwise, I might think they weren't any better than any other program. Maybe even worse than many.
In more recent years the Irish have been hit with NCAA sanctions (yes, they were actually put on two years probation in 2000) and even attempted to create a decided vegetative advantage leading up to their 2005 game with the USC Trojans when then Irish coach Charlie Weis instructed the grounds crew not to mow the grass, hoping to create a slower playing surface that would minimize the speed advantage of USC players like Reggie Bush.
By itself none of this stuff is egregious and it's really not that big a deal, but it always bugged me. Always irked me in a way I could never quite put my finger on. There's just something intellectually disingenuous about deifying a program when history points to something that is much more human. It's not right.
It wasn't until the last couple years that I was able to put my finger on exactly why I disliked the myth of the Irish so. It wasn't until the details of the Penn State scandal began to emerge that I finally understood what I hated so much about that false mystique.
All at once we had a glaring example of the worst of human nature and more frighteningly the devastation that could result from individuals ceding moral authority to something as vapid as a football program. See, people said the same types of things about Penn State as they had said about Notre Dame. Those same words - tradition, honor, respect - peppered any discussion of the storied Nittany Lions program and their patriarch Joe Paterno. In fact the impression took such root that folks quit being vigilant - quit looking out for the most defenseless among them. That's what happens when you convince yourself that your house is immune to the dirt of human nature. You forget to clean and then you actively stop cleaning and one day you find that, given darkness, time and that little special pinch of evil found in human nature, some pretty nasty things can grow in the corners. Horrible, awful things.
No place is above evil.
That fact ran through my head again and again and I read Notre Dame grad Melinda Henneberger's column about the details surrounding the tragic suicide of Lizzy Seeberg last year. Read about how she was sobbing so hard she could barely recount the (alleged) sexual assault she suffered at the hands of a football player to the friend who took her to the hospital. Read about the threatening text messages she received from other members of the team after she went to police (one of them - "messing with Notre Dame football is a bad idea). Read how campus police (who inexplicably hold jurisdiction even in cases of this seriousness) took FIFTEEN DAYS to interview the accused player. Read how those same police had found the time to investigate Ms. Seeberg thoroughly before she took her life only 10 days after the incident (that's right, she took her life BEFORE the player was even interviewed). Finally I read that the accused player never missed a single game.
There's more (from Henneberger's column):
A few months later, a resident assistant in a Notre Dame dorm drove a freshman to the hospital for a rape exam after receiving an S.O.S. call. “She said she’d been raped by a member of the football team at a party off campus,” the R.A. told me. I also spoke to the R.A.’s parents, who met the young woman that same night, when their daughter brought her to their home after leaving the hospital. They said they saw — and reported to athletic officials — a hailstorm of texts from other players, warning the young woman not to report what had happened: “They were trying to silence this girl,” the R.A.’s father told me. And did; no criminal complaint was ever filed.
That wasn't the same incident - that was ANOTHER one. I don't have the stomach to get into the details of these incidents, but fortunately reporters far more able than myself like Ms. Henneberger have covered them thoroughly. If you're going to take the time to read any pregame analysis today, I would humbly ask that you spend a portion of that time reading the article linked above (here it is again). Or maybe check out Gregg Doyle's poignant column from last week. Then maybe during the game as you're surfing around for stats take a minute between beers to check out this sickeningly detailed report of the circumstances around the incident. Give special attention to the Notre Dame player's lawyer (Notre Dame alumnus Joe Power) as he responded to Ms. Henneberger's questions via phone:
"Have you ever read the book To Kill a Mockingbird?" Power asked in a phone interview. Because, as in Harper Lee's classic, "this young lady was the aggressor." According to America's Best Lawyers, Power is the top personal injury litigator in the city of Chicago. Barreling right past innuendo, he said it was Lizzy who "had removed her blouse" and thrown herself on top of the player. And the player? "He put a stop to it, because his parents had taught him that was wrong. It's all untrue, according to the two independent witnesses."
He's referring to the player's friend who texted Lizzy, and to his date. Neither was in the room when the incident occurred, but before they left, Power said, "They observed that she was being rather forward and dancing with the young man; she was dancing for him." (Lizzy described the same moment this way: While they were dancing, the player began "pulling me towards him. It was uncomfortable but I didn't know how to stop it. Then he told me to give him a lap dance and I didn't know what to do. He pulled me down on his lap and he had his legs spread out. He started pulling my body around his crotch area and told me to keep doing it.")
When I asked Power whether his client's best friend and that friend's girlfriend could really be considered independent witnesses, he yelled, "First of all, you're a liar, because it's not his best friend, and she's no longer his girlfriend!" The two young men do now room together, in any case, and on social media the other young man posts video clips of his best plays, along with admiring comments.
"You should be writing for the John Birch Society, or the Ku Klux Klan," the lawyer continued, presumably because the player is black. "If you were in To Kill a Mockingbird, you'd be on the side of the Klan," out to destroy a black man falsely accused by a white woman. "And if you slander this innocent young man," he thundered, "you will pay!"
Honor and tradition indeed.
I'm not here to suggest that Notre Dame is any different from the other dozens of football-crazed programs in America - hell, they might even be better than a couple - I'm here to tell you they're the exact same. The belief that they hold themselves to a higher standard than anyone else - the standard of wins and losses - is simply false. Furthermore it's the existence of that very notion that has the capacity to do such damage.
There's a certain comfort to be taken in the honesty of Alabama or Texas fans in their admittance that winning is paramount and all other things come a far second. They'll tell you "if you ain't cheatin' you ain't tryin'" and do it with a wink and a nod. But at least you know what you're dealing with, and when you know to be on guard you're always watching. You've got a chance.
The myth of Notre Dame presents a far more complex set of issues. All the sudden the preservation of the image surpasses preservation of just the program. Even those people who would normally be the most vigilant against injustice are lulled into a false sense of security in the mistaken belief that "things like that can't happen here, we're different." At worst they put preservation of that image above preservation of simple right and wrong and they open themselves up to unthinkable means because they have come to believe so much in the justification of the ends.
We learned at Penn State and we learn with Notre Dame, things like that do happen there. You're no damn different. Stop with the charade.
You're nothing special Notre Dame.