Love/hate thee, Notre Dame

Author: Matt Storin ’64

Do the news media love or hate Notre Dame?

That might seem like a timely question after the embarrassment — however temporary — of the Manti Te’o controversy. For those who might have missed the story (and it’s hard for me to believe anyone could have), the star linebacker supposedly learned of the deaths of his grandmother and his girlfriend within hours of each other, a tragedy that became an inspirational story when he went on to help lead the Irish to an undefeated regular season. It was later revealed that the “girlfriend” with whom he was involved in an online relationship did not actually exist.

The most negative interpretation of the story was fueled primarily by one paragraph in a article in which an anonymous “friend” of Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, the person responsible for the deception, was quoted as saying he was “80 percent” certain Manti was in on the hoax. All evidence since that day has overwhelmingly supported Te’o’s contention that he had been duped and was entirely a victim of a “sick joke.”

The coverage was intense and generally unforgiving in the early days of the story, first reported by Deadspin on the afternoon of January 16. So I would answer my opening question as follows: The media love to love Notre Dame and they love to hate Notre Dame, because either option draws eyeballs to the page or viewers to the screen. It’s a situation that was created — or that we at Notre Dame created — generations ago. Probably both.

Such sportswriters as Grantland Rice in the 1920s and others to come loved the story of a football team of underdog Catholics who won consistently. Any college or university would be foolish not to buy into the deal, but it was a bit like making a pact with the devil. We enjoyed great success with it for a while, but a more skeptical modern day press corps learned how to turn it against us. Also, the University went from the image of struggling underdog to being portrayed as rich, elitist and selective.

Notre Dame is sometimes described as arrogant, “holier than thou” and “a myth-making machine.” And while it remains a university with an unmatched nationwide following for its athletic teams, it is that audience that attracted the attention of NBC. The network and Notre Dame signed an exclusive football broadcasting contract in 1990 — a shocking and unprecedented deal at the time — that perhaps added to the impression of arrogance.

Ironically, in the six weeks between the end of the regular 2012 football season and the ill-fated BCS National Championship game on January 7, Notre Dame saw the plus side of this deal with the devil. It received a torrent of publicity, mostly centered on the fact that the University was No. 1 in the football rankings and No. 1 in graduating its student-athletes (tied with Northwestern on the latter). Reporters came to campus to spend time in University dorms and classrooms, and even the comic strip Mallard Fillmore heralded the rare combination of academic and athletic achievement.

But oh, how the worm turned when the Te’o story broke. Headlines like “Notre Dame stumbles again” were easy to come by.

As one who spent nearly four decades as a journalist and has since worked nine years at Notre Dame, I have some perspective on why it works this way.

Some of it is cultural. The media, particularly media in the Northeast, where I spent most of my career, are conflicted about the value of college football per se. And the culture of these media institutions is also very secular. So universities that are both religiously affiliated and engaged in big-time college football (there are only six — ND, Baylor, Boston College, BYU, SMU, TCU) are not going to find great empathy among the ranks of the reporters who cover them. This does not apply in 100 percent of cases, and I personally have met a number of sports and news reporters who have favorable base attitudes toward Notre Dame.

But the primary cause is that, like the New York Yankees and a few other sports franchises, Notre Dame is celebrated and historically successful. So the desire to tear down or exaggerate controversies is tempting. Late this past January there was a report that some Alabama football players had been seen ingesting a potentially illegal substance (deer antler spray) prior to the 2012 National Championship game. To date the report has passed without much follow-up. But substitute the words “Notre Dame” for Alabama and perhaps we would have seen TV trucks back on campus with an ESPN reporter doing live shots in front of “Touchdown Jesus.”

Some reporters just don’t “get” Notre Dame. They understand why Alabamans love the Crimson Tide and folks in the Bayou love the LSU Tigers, but they don’t see why thousands from coast to coast so passionately love Notre Dame.

I could go on about how the remote location, even the challenging weather, help a spiritual and beautiful campus ingrain itself into the very souls of many who study, work or just visit here. Reporters who come on a few autumn weekends don’t experience February and how that intense communal existence might build feelings of love and loyalty. They don’t have an understanding of our caring faculty and staff, our residential system, commitment to the Catholic faith, the dedication and inspiration of our Holy Cross priests, and the prayerful and bonding experiences of a dorm Mass on Sunday evenings — or how these experiences don’t fade easily into postgraduate indifference. Then there are the subway alums, who have never been here but who envision Notre Dame as a combination of spirituality and strength that somehow resonates with their own values.

Generations ago, Notre Dame football became a larger and in some ways an unrepresentative part of the University’s image. Hundreds of thousands of visitors come here every year for the games. The NBC contract and sales of licensed products generate important revenues for the University’s academic mission. The history of Notre Dame football turned a remote, relatively small Midwestern school into an international legend. It is what it is. The media are going to love to love us when things go well, and love to humble us when they don’t.

We in the University’s administration need to deal with these circumstances as best we can. Balancing the need for transparency while respecting the privacy of our students — a privacy required by federal law — is just one of the challenges. Anticipating potential crises on the horizon is a constant effort. No one would claim we cannot do better in managing all the facets of this. But we’ll probably continue to be loved and hated.

And a bit of humbling from time to time is not necessarily a bad thing.

Matt Storin, a former editor of The Boston Globe and former associate vice president for news and information at Notre Dame, is the University’s chief communications executive.