The frenzy of the wrathful can resume, for Our Lady sits gleaming again on her throne at the summit of the college football mountain.
My grandmother, God rest her soul, would have written something like that in a letter to me last week, for she thought and wrote in the diction of the New Testament, called Notre Dame "Our Lady," and prayed to the Virgin Mary more than to God himself. And she, like many Irish Catholic immigrants to the anthracite coal region of northeastern Pennsylvania, loved Notre Dame football.
Her husband, hard as the anthracite he hammered in those coal caves, joked that Notre Dame fans in the area weren’t subway alumni but tunnel alumni – coal tunnels. The Welsh Protestant foremen and mine owners hated the fighting Irish whom they employed and hated the Fighting Irish again on Saturday afternoons. No branding genius in 1930s South Bend, let alone on 1960s Mad Men, could have envisioned Hawaiian Mormon Manti Te’o a few generations later explaining Notre Dame’s goal line stand against USC in the fourth quarter last Saturday with stunning transethnic simplicity: "We are the Fighting Irish."
Saturdays took on the ritual taste of Sundays for a good Catholic boy.
But it was my great uncle who most secured my devotion to Our Lady one Saturday afternoon in his Sears Roebuck house near the Susquehanna River when he convinced my 6- year-old, already myth-saturated self that the bones of Jesus Christ were buried at the foot of the Touchdown Jesus mural alongside Notre Dame Stadium. He was surely drunk at the time, but even at my age I sensed that he was so practiced at drunkenness that his brain maintained cognition on a separate, sober plane, so I bought the story for a good while longer than the Santa Claus myth. And Saturdays took on the ritual taste of Sundays for a good Catholic boy.
I didn’t go to Notre Dame, nor has anyone in my family. Indeed, I’ve been schooled by the Jesuits, the southpaws of the American Catholic Church who generally frown upon Notre Dame as the conservative seat of papist social and theological orthodoxy. But I can’t help but take a certain sociological glee in the resurrection of wrath towards Our Lady. The taxonomy of the wrathful still no doubt includes the few of the bigoted still breeding in this land, but has expanded democratically over the years to welcome in the envious, the unimaginative, and the un-American. For their sake, those who suffer at Notre Dame’s resurgence, I’d like to take a stab at diagnosing each manifestation of this wrath in the hopes of alleviating the heart disease and eternal punishment that anger, a fine old Biblical sin, will someday exact.
Anti-Irish Catholic bigotry no longer really exists, and, historically, Notre Dame football has something to do with its banishment. But the Irish gave as good as they got, and ND football also has something to do with the decline in Irish bigotry towards African- Americans. And, now, the longstanding skepticism among Catholics toward Mormons will no doubt undergo reassessment thanks to the young gentleman Te’o. All that alone justifies Notre Dame’s lucrative television contract for producing that American rarity – socially useful entertainment.
Sports obviously do more for integration of different groups than rules and political correctness. Doers effect change better than talkers. And winning does wonders for racial and religious harmony. My grandmother occasionally seemed befuddled by how so many black guys could populate a team with Notre Dame’s nickname. I could tell she longed for a rule demanding you had to be Irish to play for ND. She didn’t even want to know how many of the players weren’t Catholic. But winning, particularly during the Lou Holtz era, quelled the questioning.
In fact, in American culture, one of the few public sins left is losing. Jim Tressel knew some bad things, but didn’t report them. And he got hoisted on his former players’ shoulders as a stadium full of people cheered for him two Saturdays ago – because he won.
And now Notre Dame, she of some of the highest graduation rates in Division I athletics, she of the single-sex dorms and visitation hours, she who dares inject morality into the discussion of some tricky American social issues , is finally sinning no more where it most matters in our culture. She isn’t staying put in her loss-filled place anymore, and that incites the dormant wrathful far more than the institution’s relative integrity.
In our age of increasingly callous-free hands, envy is the new bigotry.
The Catholic French, during one of their many wars with the Brits, took to calling their Anglo-Saxon counterparts les goddams, annoyed at how the English took God’s name in vain as an adjective to precede just about every noun out of their toothy mouths. The epithet embodies the annoyance, tinged with envy, that the wrathful are venting these days. It is a testimony to the power of American materialism, I suppose, when all the SEC and Pac-12 and Big Ten identifiers I know incessantly cite the injustice of Notre Dame’s TV contract with NBC. Why does ND, having sinned in the field for two decades, get more scoops of ice cream than we do? In our age of increasingly callous-free hands, envy is the new bigotry. What you have, not what you look like, is the new standard, and Notre Dame these days is inciting a good bit of this more contemporary sin.
This envy also sounds a lot like the people who hate U2 and Bono. The band is Irish, messianic, and Bono blows his trumpet in loud and unabashed ways. The band’s last great record coincided with Notre Dame’s last great teams. And yet they pack stadiums, do Apple commercials and fill up tax shelters in the Netherlands. I know a couple guys in rock and roll bands who regularly criticize U2 on the musical merits – the Edge’s hackneyed chord progressions, their heisting of club music, even their far-shorter-than-Springsteen shows. But the critique on the merits still sounds a lot like the disdain for Notre Dame, which still sounds a lot like envy.
Notre Dame football fits right into this imaginative approach to life.
Another envy-related comparison – to the Yankees – falters on key facts. First, the Yankees are a geographical fluke, their television network and ticket prices swelled by virtue of playing in the financial capital of the world. Notre Dame masterminds the flourishing of its brand from the sexy climes of South Bend. Second, it seems somehow acceptable to loathe a professional team owned by a profiting family than it does to despise a bunch of college boys throwing a ball around in front of their fans cheering in the stands, even if there is a similar billion dollar backdrop.
The latest bromide, that the new way to hate is not to care, sure dissipated in a jiffy. Envy is the most insidious sin. Unlike gluttony or anger or lust, it lurks and sneaks and darts. And it's metastasizing like a banshee as the echoes are awakened this football season.
We Catholics admittedly are a funny breed. Gory paintings, rosaries, wine into blood, priests who can’t marry. Everything is always exaggerated for a Catholic; the Catholic imagination is hyperactive, hysterical. And Notre Dame football fits right into this imaginative approach to life. The rage for symbolism, bred into and fed to us as churchgoing children, spills over into ND grads and subway alumni alike.
But what the wrathful miss in their critique of Notre Dame bombast is that the bombast is fun, enchanting, and dramatic – just like great myth. They like to say Knute Rockne was a moneygrubber, George Gipp a lout, Rudy a fraud, and mock the mixing of religious icons with sport. The campus has a replica of Lourdes near the football stadium, for Gipp’s sake. Over the top, sure. But why so menacing?
Jonathan Chait, a Michigan grad, accomplished writer, and self-appointed standard bearer of Notre Dame wrath in the higher altitude publications like The New Republic and New York Magazine, uses his fine mind to attack that which, as a writer, as a storyteller, he should most admire:
"There is no other team in any sport – except perhaps the New York Yankees – that is so uniquely prominent that it is synonymous with the sport itself. The prominence of the Yankees makes sense; the team has won more games and more pennants than any other in baseball. But Notre Dame does not have the most wins nor the highest winning percentage of any college football program. So why does Notre Dame football hold such a prominent place in our culture? The answer lies in the power of myth." (LA Times, Sept. 24, 2006)
Then he goes on to try to debunk the myth:
"Myth is deeply embedded in Notre Dame football, the way it is in no other sports team. Not only is the 'win one for the Gipper'story a fabrication, so too is Rockne's image."
Therein lies the error of the unimaginative, personified by Chait. First, winning really isn’t everything, folks, storytelling is. Second, being raised Catholic means accepting, and hopefully cherishing myth as an intrinsic ingredient in the rich interior life. Many of us long ago accepted that myth doesn’t have to be true. Did Jesus really move that boulder that covered his tomb? Well, I wouldn’t bet my house on it, but the story sure got legs pretty quickly back in 33 AD and is still running strong.
Myth is imagination, storytelling exercised around some sort of ritual, and the Hail Mary pass and The Four Horsemen fit right in because the myths, alongside other, higher ones, were fed to us every day at school and every Sunday at church. Notre Dame’s mythology both grows out of and further nourishes this craving for larger-than-life stories. It is not that dirty-sounding thing called fabrication, but rather simple yarn-spinning no more morally reprehensible than the Greek oral tradition that ultimately resulted in Homer finally putting to paper the myth of Odysseus.
What’s more, Chait’s expectation that myth be truth doesn’t jibe with his lionization of President Obama, an uncanny mythmaker. To read Obama’s memoir, "Dreams from My Father," is to see a young man realizing that mythology can take you places, even to the White House. Obama built an astounding story as his base, and you have Chait not many years later calling Obama the best president of the past 100 years. And if the mythology that transformed Barry Obama into President Barack Obama did indeed get us the litany of accomplishments that Chait lists (NY Mag, Oct 31), then who isn’t for leveraging the power of myth, be it in college athletics or politics, if it means making more bearable the world in which we linger?
On Jan. 1, 1979, I watched with my father as Joe Montana, flu ridden and, as the announcers that day seemed to have it, nearing a Gipp-like death, suddenly threw off his parka, took a few coughs, staggered out into the flurrying snow, and like Moses led Notre Dame from 22 points down against Houston to win the Cotton Bowl.
My dad tells that story at least once a year, and each year it gets richer, more dramatic, more, as Chait says, fabricated. It is now a legend, and in a generation, after Joe has joined George inside the golden dome in heaven, it will likely become part of Notre Dame mythology.
In our culture of hype, a feeble, ephemeral relative of myth, I cherish the way legendary performances, with time, becomes part of a community’s myth.
How appropriate that the fiery imaginations of Crimson Tide loyalists today rival Notre Dame in constructing the mythology of Alabama football. I remember walking the Alabama campus in Tuscaloosa recently, and there was Bear Bryant, his eyes moving like Lincoln’s do in the monument in Washington. By the way, the Lincoln myth, at a movie theater near you, would make great matinee on January 7.
Their mythologiesare why this is the perfect BCS matchup. The communion of Southern storytellers and Irish Catholic storytellers around a football game, at its best, serves to add more stories to the ones already making up the respective mythologies, and, after the game is over, brings us together more than it drives us apart.
Mike Golic made the un-American case against the wrathful on "Mike and Mike in the Morning" a couple of weeks ago, and he made it as a business school major would. Notre Dame does branding like nobody else, and the wrathful just can’t deal with that. And for this reason, they criticize Notre Dame for things that most Americans are praised for.
They are criticizing Notre Dame for things that most Americans are praised for.
He’s right: why should Steve Jobs become an American icon for obsoleting a well-crafted gizmo every two years and a few Holy Cross priests and their board be condemned for taking a football brand to the bank? In the big business of college athletics, nobody does the business side better. And now, after 20 years of jeopardizing that brand (see Jobs 1985-95), Notre Dame, like Apple, is back, and eyeing more market share than ever.
Golic’s point – that criticism on these grounds runs counter to an American ethic – would be exact if Notre Dame were solely a business. But it is a university, a great university in a country with the greatest universities in the world, and therein lies the additional complexity that makes Golic’s un-American charge even more troubling when played out further.
The rage for independence that runs through everything that is mythically American – from the founding of the country to "Cool Hand Luke," from western settlement to John Coltrane – is admirable in Notre Dame’s independence as a football power, and, more so, as a university. Yes, I’m talking politics here. I don’t agree with a lot of Notre Dame’s institutional Catholic orthodoxy, but I admire the willingness to stand up to power, be it the college football conference system that compels capitulation or the fancy Harvard Law professors who attack Notre Dame for the university’s stance on social issues.
Lone riders are American riders, and their standing up to power betters the country in foundational ways. Notre Dame, in its own way, is doing that, and the wrathful’s frustration with independence is as more a commentary on themselves.
I was recently at a Sunday Mass in one of the poorest, most violent neighborhoods in Juarez, Mexico. During the service, gunshots could be heard nearby, and it turned out that two cops were murdered on a sidewalk two blocks from the Church that Sunday morning.
I sat in a pew toward the rear as hundreds of Mexicans began to sing along with a barrel- chested Australian priest named Kevin Mullins. As he made the sign of the cross to begin the Mass, two boys filed in next to me in front of their parents. Their mother tugged their jackets off, and out of the corner of my eye I realized they were wearing matching Notre Dame sweaters.
We exchanged handshakes prior to Communion, and I pointed to their jerseys and gave a thumbs up. They pumped their fists and smiled back.
After Mass, as the raucous parish filed out, I asked the boys if they wanted to go to Notre Dame someday.
"If they go to Notre Dame it would be like they were going to heaven"
"Si!" they shouted and jumped up and down.
Their mother smiled kindly.
"If they go to Notre Dame it would be like they were going to heaven," she said.
I didn’t ask for more explanation after she left me speechless.
That’s not the kind of story the wrathful want to hear, for it forecasts that even the current wave of massive immigration into America will be perpetuating the Notre Dame mythology. It means that those diabolical Holy Cross fathers are building a brand that reaches beyond the gray-headed season ticket holders and aging subway alumni whom the wrathful mock as boring. It means that the next Manti Te’o will hail from Oaxaca or Chihuahua. And it means that a very American, mythic form of communion will keep enriching Saturdays for years to come, on television and in South Bend and in Irish bars across the land, mixing the secular and the sacred in a way that satisfies a lovely, mythic need.