If you have been following the early stages of the dramatic hoax of celebrated Notre Dame linebacker Manti T’eo, you, like I, might be a little suspicious of the front stories of American sports heroes.* We have already been well prepped by doping scandals in baseball, and the sexual abuse scandals at Penn State that brought the downfall and maybe even the death of the sainted coach Joe Paterno, and the Tour de Fiasco, of Lance Armstrong. Sports are not only riddled with false heroes, they are also perversely linked with nationalism and militarism. In some cases, like that of Notre Dame, the call mingling of athletics and faith can result in a narrative that plays fast and loose with the truth.
When Alabama’s Crimson Tide rolled over the fighting Irish in the BCS championship game I must admit I allowed myself a quiet smile of satisfaction.* That probably would not have been the case around 60 years ago when my innocent allegiances were with the “Fighting Irish” (Poles, Italians, etc.). I can still remember well that day back in the 1950s when Notre Dame ended Oklahoma’s 47-game winning streak; my brother and I hooted and danced around the living room in front of the TV set. I was Catholic then, at least nominally, and Notre Dame football players were all crusaders and represented that part of Christendom that we regarded as the “one, true, apostolic” church.
I need a little paragraph of expository digression here. I think even one you are a kid you have a sense of when you are engaging, or induced to engage, in a willing suspension of disbelief. Being indoctrinated into a religion is a little bit like going to the movies; there’s a narrative you need to believe, some central players who need to win you over as protagonists and antagonists, and you need to conjoin your personal emotions with that narrative. My sense early on was that I was supposed to believe that narrative, it was the right thing and everybody else around me believed it; but there was a sense lurking in the back of my mind – – had I expressed it the mountains would have quickly rebutted it with “that’s the devil’s work” – – that I was going through the motions. I knew that I really didn’t believe it, but was afraid that if I was wrong I would be out there on my own and bad things might happen to me.
I never wanted to attend Notre Dame, but not too many years after that win over Oklahoma I was on a train out to South Bend is for what was being heralded as another historic football game. By this time I had seen a load of Catholic movies from Boys Town and the Bells of St. Mary’s to that Notre Dame movie about “winning one for the Gipper.” By then I had learned about the Protestant Reformation and the Church’ Counterreformation that employed to great effect the arts, public public relations, war, terrorism and torture. In America those methods were reduced to the arts, and now sports. And Notre Dame figured prominently on the silver screen and on the gridiron.
It was 1963 and I was already in graduate school at a secular university, my first real venture away from the bosom of Holy Mother Church, into an intellectually challenging world of Protestants, Jews, Buddhists and atheists. The trip to South Bend, along with my then fiancée, was at the invitation of a former professor was now teaching at Notre Dame. He had purchased tickets for us for a football game between the Fighting Irish and the Midshipmen of Navy who were then being led by their Heisman quarterback, Roger Staubach. The campus was a riot of pep rallies, inspirational speeches by its media savy president Fr. Theodore Hesberg, and sexually frustrated dorm rats chanting “kick Navy’s aft” from their windows.** Our host escorted us to the sacred grotto to the Virgin, where many a football player visits to beseech her intercession to bestow victory. This is also a campus that features, along with its “Golden Dome,” a huge mural of the Virgin-born son viewable from the stadium who is referred to, un-sacrilegiously, as “Touchdown Jesus.” [You may pause for a puke here]
Our host, a devout and intensely conservative Catholic, worshiped his University and its football team. He regaled us with stories of venerated coaches, anecdotes about fabled players and glories in traditions that mortared this fusion of faith and sport. It was all too much, too concocted, too cloying, with the BVM, her “Fighting Irish” and sappy “win one for the Gipper” inspirationals. Even then, long before the churches rightward bent against women, homosexuals, before it’s being exposed for its protection of pederastic priests, I knew I no longer wanted to be a part of it, and I found myself first silently, rooting for it—the Church’s—defeat. Navy took care of Notre Dame’s defeat 35 – 7.
Fast-forward to the present and, if one ever needed cause to doubt the efficacy of prayer, the humiliation that Notre Dame football team suffered at the hands, and feet, of Alabama in the so called national championship game should suffice. How many rosaries, novenas, masses, and other pious supplications were rendered null and void, or simply ignored by the metaphysical forces that religious dogma alleges decides the outcome of all matters great and small. But for this to have happened to the venerated institution that bears the name of the Blessed Virgin who putatively birthed the son of God shakes not only the faith that the Roman Catholic Church has been chosen to lead the way to salvation but also that Notre Dame’s University has been ordained to smite the secular world on the gridiron.
Now before you begin thinking that my celebration of Notre Dame’s defeat is also reflective of my support of the Crimson Tide, let it be known that I– and I’m sure Alabamians would appreciate the metaphor – had “no dog in this hunt.” Indeed, my evolving disaffection for the corrupt Roman Catholic Church, has risen to meet the contempt I have always had for the socially corrupt American Southern states. Both are institutions riddled with bigotry and hypocrisy. It was not that many years ago that neither the Notre Dame for Alabama football team had a black athlete on its roster. Today, neither could beat the nearest high school champion were it not for the dominant number of blacks in their starting lineups and among their star players. Indeed the entire SEC, the dominant football conference is ironically, very much a contest among the progeny of erstwhile slaves, admitted to participation in a perversion of their universities that renders them little more than farm teams for the National Football League only because of their athletic ability. One can only wonder what combination of desperation and denial is necessary for black athletes to wear the uniforms of universities such as South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Ole Miss, once bastions of American apartheid and where rebel flags are still displayed and Dixie insultingly played.
Born of the Church, Notre Dame knows very well the brand value of a dramatic narrative. The Manti T’eo hoax played well into that narrative during a season in which the defensive captain and, interestingly, Mormon, star linebacker, played with a heart broken by the deaths of his grandmother and his leukemia afflicted non-existent girlfriend on the same day. Nevertheless, in this Hollywood-like plot, he led his team to an undefeated season, only to be crushed by Alabama and then the revelation that his beloved departed girlfriend was a hoax. Being a Latter Day Saint playing for the glory of the Blessed Virgin Mary one might not be able to find a better prepared victim for deception.
© 2013, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 1.19.2013)
*If you believe the Manti story have I got a church for you to join.
**Notre Dame Navy was the longest intersectional collegiate football rivalry.