God Made Us #1

by Tobias Peterson

18 December 2006


Mistletoe. Eggnog. That can-shaped cylinder of cranberry jelly that sits, untouched, next to the centerpiece. Holidays are about tradition. But an increasing part of that tradition is a kind of meta-debate that has begun to surface this time of year, concerning tradition’s own cultural value and place. Whose traditions matter? Whose can we afford to publicly exclude?

Conservatives, spearheaded by Fox News and Bill O’Reilly, have labeled this kind of examination “The War Against Christmas”, a dastardly plot hatched by godless liberals who seek to undermine American culture at every turn. From the aisles of Wal-Mart to the gates of the Sea-Tac airport, questions about whether and how to celebrate the holiday season have been met with boycotts and outrage from those who man the bulwarks of tradition against those who would seek to expand the rigid confines of “the good old days” (when everything was better) for a more inclusive future.

Sports, too, have been touched by the same kind of divide that fuels the Christmas debate. The same longing for years past manifests itself in those who would return the salaries of athletes to their working class origins, restoring common ground between those who play the games and those who watch them. And the same indignation at “special” (read equal) treatment for minorities can be seen in the weekly damnation by fans and media members of receivers, point guards, and outfielders who fail to assume a posture of anonymous gratitude and dare to draw attention to themselves as superstars.

But despite the best efforts of web columnists and other activists who labor against the movement to arrest (if not jail outright) changes in the social order, it’s a sad reality that such a stodgy element has always been with us, and will undeniably be with us in the future. Just as Plato and Socrates bemoaned the youth of their day, so will generations, decades hence, continue to see the next wave of new attitudes and ideas as affronts to all they hold dear. What’s a forward-thinking sports fan to do, one might ask, in the face of all this interminable, inexorable grousing?

One strategy might be to approach these hardliners for what they really are: an unavoidable consequence of time’s passage. As long as there is a past to remember, there will be those to decry the present and future. Sure, they can be dangerous when it comes to politics, but sports are hardly a matter of life and death (though it may seem so at times). Why not embrace the charity of this season’s holiday spirit (in whatever form that may take for you), and give hardliners of highlights past something they will truly appreciate? At the very least, you might be able to give them something to temporarily distract from their bellyaching about players’ unions, guaranteed contracts, and endorsement deals. For this, one need look no further than University of Notre Dame: Fighting Irish DVD Collector’s Set. The eight DVDs included in the set will instantly placate a viewer’s need for sports nostalgia and makes the perfect gift solution for any fan who sees in today’s athletes the collapse of civilization as we know it.

The collection features seven of Notre Dame football’s most famous victories (plus one 1966 tie against Michigan State), including commercial free versions of the pre-game and, for some offerings, post-game shows. Fans can choose to watch a particular quarter of a game, or even a selected scoring drive within that quarter. Additionally, each DVD cover reproduces a myriad of stats for the serious fan, including the game’s starting rosters, exact start time, relevant trivia and quotes, and even the weather in which the game was played. The collection as a whole provides a celebratory feast of information for any die-hard fan, and is produced by A&E Home Video—which has created similar retrospectives for the USC, Florida, and Texas football programs. None, however, can mobilize nostalgia, reverence, and, yes, tradition like Notre Dame.

To begin with, the football team has a rich and well-documented history, stretching back to coach Knute Rockne who, along with players like the legendary backfield known as “The Four Horsemen”, led the Fighting Irish to several national championships in the 1920s. George “The Gipper” Gipp was another famous player of Rockne’s, whose death from pneumonia inspired the coach to give a legendary (if difficult to authenticate) speech. In it, Rockne encouraged his team to “win one for the Gipper”, a seemingly benign quip whose value former President Ronald Reagan knew only too well. After playing Rockne in the film Knute Rockne, All American, Reagan invoked the lore of Notre Dame in speeches like the one he gave at the 1988 Republican National Convention, utilizing both his film career and the iconic status of the Notre Dame coach in a successful bid for election victory.

Beyond its famous forebears, Notre Dame also embodies the heartland values of middle America like no other team. From the unabashed phonetic mangling of the school’s French name (every game broadcast must set Victor Hugo spinning in his grave anew) to the idyllic Indiana countryside in which the school stands, Notre Dame’s football team plays out in American consciousness like a football version of the movie Hoosiers. Like that film—in which a group of (white) farmers’ sons from Hickory, Indiana beats a (predominantly black) big city team to win the Indiana high school basketball championship—Notre Dame’s football highlights stretch out like one long, continuous John Mellencamp video. But we need not rely on mere analogy. In films like Reagan’s Rockne portrayal and the more recent Rudy (featuring Sean Astin as a pint-sized equipment manager who gets his dream shot at playing for the team’s varsity squad), Notre Dame football is actively celebrated as a source of the inspirational and the miraculous, where the little guy can, through hard work and clean living, overcome insurmountable odds.

And “miraculous” is precisely the word for it. While many religiously affiliated colleges see their athletic program as ancillary, Notre Dame’s seamless and active blending of sport and Christianity is unprecedented elsewhere in the sports world. Taking a motto like mens sana in corpore sano to heart, Notre Dame as a school wears its religion on its team’s uniform sleeves—or at least on its edifices. “Touchdown Jesus, ,a mosaic on the side of the university’s Hesburgh library, is portrayed with his arms outstretched in a welcoming posture, or to signal a score by the football team, or (most likely, given the school’s ethos) both. Regardless of differing opinions by religious experts, Jesus is indeed a football fan at Notre Dame. And can there be any question who he roots for?

Not among the team’s fans, who are given a good deal of face time in the DVD collection. In one pre-game pep rally on the eve of their 1977 match against USC, a Notre Dame supporter holds up a bumper sticker reading, “God Made Notre Dame #1”. Who could argue with that logic? (Certainly not USC, who were trounced the next day 49-19.) More than simply an extension of religious belief, however, the team represents a source of spiritual comfort, rather than any particular doctrine. Coach Lou Holtz, for example, reveals in an interview that he encouraged his players to “believe in the spirit of Notre Dame” in order to achieve a victory against their powerhouse opponents the University of Miami. Tactics be damned, we are meant to infer, it was belief that broke up Miami’s two-point try in the last seconds, delivering the victory.

Tactics and talent, however, are what are in ample supply in this DVD series. Regardless of one’s religious affiliation, Notre Dame’s historic dominance of collegiate football is undeniable. Still, what brings students, top athletes, television contracts, and merchandise revenue to the school to support the football team? No small part of the answer must be the kind of mystical sway that the team holds over our popular conscious, making it difficult to determine where sporting fanaticism ends and religious fervor begins. Perhaps that’s to be expected, for ultimately, like religion, Notre Dame football provides its fans a kind of comfort, a way to organize the often difficult and messy world through force of ritual (like the team’s gold helmets), hymn (the school fight song), and prayer (for both salvation and a winning record).

In short, the team is the cultural equivalent of a gigantic, God-fearing, Christmas present—decorated with wrapping resplendent with images of Jesus, Santa, American flags, and Uncle Sam. This year, as the team returns to prominence after a brief fall from grace under the stewardship of head coach Charlie Weis and model quarterback Brady Quinn, the University of Notre Dame: Fighting Irish DVD Collector’s Set will make the perfect gift for that fan who fears the encroachment of modernity and multiculturalism. The set is the perfect venue for reassuring conservative sports fans that their world, embattled by liberal agendas, a biased media, and spoiled athletes, still makes sense.

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