Archive for September 2007

Love, Hate, and Notre Dame Football

September 25, 2007

I’ve been a Notre Dame fan since birth. My father attended the Holy Mother’s law school during the Joe Montana days. Both my parents are from the East Coast, so they’re profoundly disinterested in the IU-Purdue feud. So am I: I grew up during the twilight of Coach Knight, and Indiana University football has been a wasteland since time immemorial, but I will forever associate Purdue sports with a stinky friend from elementary school who had three loves: Cheeze-Its, computer pinball, and the Boilers. So it was rah, rah, go Irish, from Lou Holtz and his neck brace to Notre Dame 63-Rutgers 0 (the only game I’ve attended) to the simple mediocrity of Bob Davie. Like the Baltimore Orioles, the Fighting Irish were my father’s team, and that’s why I loved them.

That said, when the meager Duke football team squares off with the Fighting Irish next month, I’ll be pulling for the Blue Devils.

I’m not cooling on the Irish because they’ve started 0-4. Well, that’s an exaggeration. Of course an awful team will dampen one’s excitement: that’s why I’ve only attended one Duke football game. My doubts about the Irish are…well, they’re spiritual.

Yes, that is the right word. Notre Dame is an essential part of Catholic Americana, right up there with Guadalupe and the Corleones’ interesting uses for religious ceremonies in the Godfather movies. Much of this fame is well-earned: unlike the Jesuits at Georgetown, the Holy Cross brothers have run their university in an orthodox fashion, and Catholics did face a lot of prejudice in the first half of this century, so the institution and the team were an encouragement to them. Yet advertisement has been just as important to Notre Dame’s success. We’re all familiar with “Rudy,” but the first Notre Dame hagiography was much earlier: 1940’s “Knute Rockne, All American” (“Tell’em to go out there and win one for the Gipper”). Rockne, an excellent coach but also a master salesman, set the mold for everything to come. It seems like everything unique – Touchdown Jesus, the Grotto, golden helmets, “Play Like a Champion Today” – is packaged and sold in one way or another. When Tyrone Willingham ripped off an 8-0 start in his first year as coach, Notre Dame made brisk business on green shirts with “RETURN TO GLORY” emblazoned on them.

The commercial and cultural aspects have always been peripheral for me: my favorite thing about Notre Dame games is actually the weather. It’s cloudy and crisp, perfect for jeans and a sweatshirt, and every snap of wind brings the smell of tailgate and the thrill of being alive. Notre Dame’s claim to exceptionalism wouldn’t be a problem, though, if it really was different from everyone else. These days, it isn’t.

There have always been blemishes under the veneer of success. The star players, from George Gipp to Joe Theismann to Brady Quinn, never have to study. Fr. Hesburgh, the school’s most revered president, deemphasized the football team when he took over because he felt it got in the way of Notre Dame’s academics. More egregiously, my father has always claimed there is a correlation between alumni donations to the university and the success of the football team. In my limited opinion, though, the last few years have seen the worst of it. The athletic department nudged Lou Holtz into retirement so it could hire Bob Davie. At the end of his tenure, AD Kevin White extended his contract and fired him in the same year. Jolly Irish Catholic George O’Leary resigned a week after he was hired because the print media deduced he’d lied on his resume.

This lead to the saddest part of the story: Tyrone Willingham. Willingham was a strong silent type with exceptional character. He recruited players who were great students as well as good players, as he did at Stanford, which he lead to the Rose Bowl (and where are the Cardinal now?). My piano teacher, whose son transferred from Charles Rogers’s Michigan State to Willingham’s Irish team, was practically smitten with him. Notre Dame sells character as much as it sells winning, and under this coach, that claim was legit.

There was only one problem: the team didn’t win enough games. In the first three years of a five-year contract, his teams went 10-3, 5-7, and 6-5, and the administration, under heavy pressure from the boosters, showed him the door before he could see his recuits become seniors. Said Kevin White, “From Sunday through Friday our football program has exceeded all expectations, in every way. But on Saturday, we struggled. We’ve been up and down and sideways a little bit.” And reading that, my soul died a little.

As with its previous job search, Notre Dame turned first to an Irish Catholic: young mensch Urban Meyer. Alas, he turned them down in favor of the University of Florida. I recall some fans being outraged he’d chosen a public school over dear mother ND, but his choice makes sense to me. A state school can win games and raise young men just as well without being pretentious about it. Bobby Bowden even takes his players to church each Sunday.

The University turned and turned and turned the pages of the phone book and eventually landed Charlie Weis, the offensive coordinator for the Patriots’ championship teams. He has a good football mind, and he did wonders with Brady Quinn, but he isn’t the same man Willingham was. Calling the play a dying boy requested was cool, but typically, he’s arrogant and coarse. When he received a ten-year extension during his first season (the administration got a little excited), he said, “Since the first day I arrived at Notre Dame as head football coach, one of my primary goals was to be able to see this job through to the time my son, Charlie, would graduate from the University of Notre Dame and to stay in this position until I retire.” At the time, his son was 12 years old. “Well, of course he’s a jerk! He’s a football coach! Mrh mrh mrh!” one could respond, but his predecessor was above that.

Now we’re entering the winter of Weis’s tenure. The third and fourth years are the most difficult for a college coach because the upperclassmen from that time were recruited during the changing of the guard, when neither the old coach nor the new could fully devote himself to finding great players. It happened to Willingham, and now it’s happening to Weis in a more spectacular fashion: unless humble Duke bests the Irish, this looks like a 3-9 year. The only other years this bad were 2-8’s in 1956 and 1960, when Hesburgh wanted the team to be bad.

Then again, I think it’s better this way. Notre Dame has lost 10 straight bowl games, and that’s no coincidence. Every time Notre Dame has a winning season, it gets into a better bowl than it deserves because the organizers know all the Catholics in the country will fly into town to watch. Every time Notre Dame goes 10-2, even if the 2 losses were blowouts to the only elite teams on the schedule (see: last year), Notre Dame will get a BCS bid and the resulting $13.1 million payout. The university could use the money more than its publicly-subsidized state school brethren, but it’s always degrading to know you’re getting something not for what you’ve done, but for who you are. And what Notre Dame claims it is – a shining city on a hill among football programs – isn’t true anymore. It’ll always be my team, don’t expect me to dress like a leprechaun for a game anytime soon.


Living at the margins

September 18, 2007

I visited the arts career counselor last week. She told me that it’s nearly impossible to make the staff for a magazine or newspaper right off the bat, so the only way to break into writing is to freelance. I’ll likely need to take another job and pursue my major aspiration in my “leisure time.” She then gave me a few websites for fellowships and publishing jobs. In other words, I’m on my own.

Oddly enough, freelance writing would be a deviation from my usual behavior. In high school, I filled my time with cross country, track, piano, band, orchestra, youth group, novels, homework, and Internet arguments, so I could build a base of various talents and experiences for the future. I told myself I’d get it done in college, but then something else intervened: the Catholic Church. In retrospect, I’m a little astonished at how much time I’ve given to this community. Unless I enter the seminary next year, Newman won’t give me any direct vocational experience. Was the time I spent there wasted?

If I’m unhappy twenty years from now (my greatest fear), I may yearn to have this moment back. For now, though, I am satisfied with my choices. Through the Catholic community, I’ve made great friends whom I can visit all over the world. I’ve had the opportunity to push my social and leadership skills far beyond where they were in high school. (I’d actually never lead anything before I came to Duke.) The same goes for my spiritual life: I’ve always had the whole catechism in my head, but now my heart is closer to His ways than ever. I’ll never forget the Sunday of Awakening #5, when I was Jesus, and everything I did came not from my mind but from His, and my heart was burning, burning but not consuming itself.

My soul should burst out of my works, so it’s good that it matured in this community. What tips the scales for me, though, is the opportunity I’ve had to inspirit other people. Duke has literary magazines, but only ten people read them. The campus’s Christian community, on the other hand, is large and growing, and I’ve contributed to it. I haven’t established myself as a writer, but I have brought some light to the world. I kept myself on the margins of the literary world, but I did it for love. I can live with that.

The sooner I sleep, the sooner it’s over

September 13, 2007

Today, I managed to walk to my classes without losing half my water weight. That means the summer is breaking. I won’t have to worry about heat stroke during my runs (rule of thumb: when I can’t sweat anymore, it’s time to go inside), and in another month it might feel like Cross Country outside. Some of my friends are happy about this development, and I understand that. One reason we associate spring with life is that summer is so intense, it goes in the other direction: sometimes, the grass can’t even survive the heat. Half of July, I felt like I was living inside a coffin.

Even when Durham resembled Vivaldi’s “Summer,” though, I savored it because I knew this would be my last North Carolina August, and I’m a tad somber for its passing. The graduation clock is ticking but not yet ringing, and I sense I’m appreciating this place more than I have before. What is good, I love, and what is not is good for a laugh at least. At last weekend’s Catholic Beach Retreat, where I met the nicest freshman class ever, I was the last one in bed each night because the sooner I slept, the sooner it would be over. This is senior year, and sunset is the most breathtaking part of the day.

How Socrates, Martin Luther King, and Ronald Dworkin might judge Antigone

September 12, 2007

Socrates, King, and Dworkin would all agree with Antigone’s decision to bury her brother, as all of them believe the citizen has a moral imperative to place his conscience before the law.  However, they would disagree about the way Creon should address the situation.  I suspect that Socrates would agree with his decision to punish his niece.  King would not welcome it, but he would expect it and would expect Antigone to abide by it.  Dworkin would argue that Creon’s legalism would actually achieve the opposite of his stated intent (preservation of the law), and he should not prosecute Antigone at all.

The first principle that Socrates espouses in his conversation with Crito is that one must not do wrong under any circumstances.  Socrates claims that a “divine sign” counsels him on which actions he should take, and I interpret this sign as the equivalent of Antigone’s conscience.  Socrates acquiesced to his execution at the hands of the Athenians because his divine sign did not stop him, and he did not comprehend how respecting his sentence would harm anyone.  Given his interpretation of the social contract, I would expect Socrates to counsel Creon to punish Antigone and Antigone to accept this sentence.  Though the legitimacy of Creon’s regime is unsettled, he is the current representative of government and the laws, so his decisions must be respected in order to preserve the social contract.  The citizen of a state must be expected to follow the law at all times, just as Socrates respected the law of a corrupt Athens.

Martin Luther King’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” uses the primacy of natural law as one of its premises, so I would expect him to sympathize with Antigone’s intentions: like him, she appeals to a “higher” and “more ancient” code.  King defines an unjust law as one which degrades personality and continues, referencing Aquinas, to say that it seems to be no law at all.  I doubt King would consider Creon’s law unjust by his Christian standards.  If he were to adopt or respect the Greek moral framework, though, he’d accept Antigone’s actions as unavoidable and necessary parts of changing an unjust law.  Because Creon made the decision by himself with little to no input from the citizens who must deal with the consequences, this law fits King’s standard of non-democracy.  Just as King accepted his stays in prison, though, Antigone would have to deal with her sentence.  Her example may inspire the public to repeal the law, but that notwithstanding, accepting punishment is integral to civil disobedience.

Dworkin also accepts the legitimacy of Antigone’s protest.  He strays from the other authors in his prescription for Creon.  If he were lord of Thebes, Dworkin would not have prosecuted Antigone because he would consider Creon’s edicts both draconian and constitutionally doubtful.  It impedes upon Polynices’s passage to the afterlife, and what’s more, the Chorus, which represents the will of the people, takes the side of Antigone.  Due to this sympathy, continuing to enforce this law would create unnecessary enmity between citizenry and state.  Thanks to the doubtful legitimacy of Eteocles’s accession to the throne, this case is specific enough that Creon’s mercy would not lead to legal chaos.

I find Dworkin’s position the most cogent because it addresses the responsibilities of both the citizen and the state rather than simply the former.  Few thinkers would exhort people to put the laws above their own consciences, so neither Socrates nor King contributes uniquely to this quarrel.  On the other hand, Dworkin’s argument that enforcement of an unjust law will harm the laws as a whole is especially apropos for this story: Creon, not Antigone, is the tragic hero of this story, and the former’s inflexibility is the tale’s tragic flaw.

The Peril of the Layman

September 3, 2007

The Catholic Church considers marriage and the priesthood separate vocations, not just traditionally but also sacramentally. She says that these callings require such commitment that would be unfair to expect a single person to adequately perform both, especially when doing so could cause conflicts of interest. I support the Church’s assessment, but it does produce a couple challenges. The first, that celibacy and the desire for family could drive a priest mad, has been much articulated the last ten years. The second has not. It’s the temptation for a layman, because he does not administer the sacraments, to think he doesn’t have to be “as Catholic” as the priest is. “Church may be Monsignor’s thing, but I’m a man of the world.”

It’s just not true. Even if all our activities aren’t religiously affiliated, we’re called to pray without ceasing. God owns our lives as much as he owns the priest’s, and we have to keep that attitude.

This dichotomy can also develop between Christians who are very involved with a youth group and Christians who aren’t. Neither is holier than the other, but both have to make sure they’re doing what God asks of them.

The Voice of My Generation

September 3, 2007

The 103rd year of the Chronicle has commenced, and with it comes the annual Sarcasm Contest among the paper’s editorialists. As my last sentence showed, I’m no stranger to dry humor, but its preponderance among writers is starting to worry me. Mockery is an effective response to the arrogant, so it’s been at home in political thought ever since Thersites, but now it seems like the default voice for all blogs, from sports to gossip. Self-importance has pervaded every aspect of our culture, and someone needs to pop those bubbles, but if half the writers are bloviating, and the other half are lacerating, who will tell the world about what’s actually beautiful?

If we don’t hear it, our spirits will corrode. Yet the stories are out there. Life has always been awe-inspiring, but now the world is coming together in a million ways that were never possible before. Walls are falling! Libraries from Alexandria to DC are moving their bookshelves online! The ancient peoples are uniting! So why so many weary and deconstructive voices? It doesn’t! Have! To be this way! Find the Good, or make it!*

*Apologies to Hannibal.