In the early 1950s, near the end of the Frank Leahy era in Notre Dame football, the University’s new young president, Theodore M. Hesburgh, CSC, had just been interviewed by a reporter when a photographer tossed a football to the priest and asked him to pose with it. Perhaps, it was suggested, you could pretend to be hiking the ball. Hesburgh bristled; he would have none of it. His dream was for Notre Dame to earn its place among the nation’s finest universities, and such foolishness would only perpetuate the perception of Notre Dame as a football school.
In the years following, as Leahy’s retirement led to a decade of football mediocrity and Hesburgh pushed the University toward scholarly excellence, Fighting Irish followers were distraught over what they viewed as the de-emphasis of football and were certain the glory days were over.
That has been the Notre Dame story ever since some of Knute Rockne’s maneuvers rankled administrators back in the 1920s — a wrestling match between athletics and academics. To some, Notre Dame’s athletic prowess has been an asset (football has helped shape the school and bring it national attention) as well as a liability (many members of the academy seem unable to think Notre Dame can be good at both sports and scholarship).
That perennial tension is a popular topic these days, resurfacing because of the recent misfortunes in football, the notable success of other Notre Dame teams, the burgeoning commercialization and professionalization of collegiate sports, and the University’s mounting stature in higher education.
The attempt to serve two masters also has spawned an interesting love-hate relationship. Notre Dame people love their sports, yet they get riled when the athletic image seems to shine brighter than the other stars in the Notre Dame constellation. Alumni will tell you that sports is secondary to other qualities of the University, then they will engage you in some lively sports talk that demonstrates an insider’s knowledge and nuance. Faculty members will complain about the exalted position given athletics at this institution (saying it embarrasses them at scholarly gatherings) and then spend the next 30 minutes criticizing Saturday’s play calls. University leaders, vigilant about keeping sports in the proper perspective, routinely host VIP functions on football weekends. And prominent writers end phone conversations about social injustice, world affairs or the role of faith in a secular society with questions about the current crop of quarterbacks.
For better or worse, athletics and Notre Dame are inseparable — probably always will be. Yet for a place that takes itself very seriously, sports offer a nice change of pace. They are something fun to talk about, a welcome diversion, a reminder of the importance of play, a rich metaphor for life’s meanings, and a valuable source of bonding and unity.
See links to read about Notre Dame athletics in 2002 as the University continues trying to keep sports in its proper place.
— Kerry Temple ’74
Notre Dame Magazine, Summer 2002