My 'Notre Dame First': Make Football a Force Too

By Tom O'Toole

In yet another fundraising effort by my alma mater, the University recently sent me the current installment of their “Notre Dame Firsts” initiative. On the outside of the cool blue and gold envelope, the school has picked out two signature dates and their significance, one of which alludes, not altogether positively, to football.


Father Sorin writes a letter to his superior in France in which he describes that the University of Notre Dame will become a “force for good.”


Word of Life: Library’s mosaic mural entitled “The Word of Life” is completed. It was quickly — and affectionately — nicknamed “Touchdown Jesus.”

Inside, after you get past the many money-grabbing slogans (“Be proud of where we have been. Be a part of where we are going,” and “Together we create Notre Dame’s future — make your gift today!” to name two) you’ll find a timeline with 95 other important “Notre Dame Firsts” dates, fifteen of which directly involve football, and six others, such as “Touchdown Jesus,” that are at least partially associated with it.

On the one hand, I guess you could say that’s a pretty high percentage. Of course, the fundraising gurus are not fools, knowing full well that a significant amount of donations are contingent on the success of the school’s sports, especially football. On the other hand, the events they choose — and the way they write about them, are telling.

Now whenever you have lists, there’s going to be disagreements on what has been included and excluded. And since this is a fundraising “firsts” list, I can see why it is heavy on new buildings. Still while I have no problem with their inclusion of “1930: First football game at Notre Dame Stadium (ND 24, SMU 14)” or even “1996: The University expands Notre Dame Stadium, adding more than 20,000 seats” (although their commentary, “and they all have a great view,” is a bit much, considering I doubt the heavy donors have ever sat in the cheap seats). I’m not sure that “1982: Notre Dame holds its first night game (ND 23, Michigan 17)” is that important that it needs to be included in the school’s significant history. Unless of course you are one of those who hold the ND-NBC contract in the same significance as the 1896 construction of the grotto — which fortunately, still made the cut!

All in all, I suppose it is the actual achievements, as opposed to the monuments, of the football team that I feel were slighted. For example the list proudly includes the date “2001: First National Championship for women’s basketball.” Nothing against Hall of Fame women’s coach Muffet McGraw and her stellar record, which included runner-up NCAA finishes the last two seasons, but the fact is that 2001 was the Lady Irish’s ONLY championship, so why they couldn’t have included the first of ELEVEN football national championships is beyond me.

Also, while I totally agree that “1972: Notre Dame admits women undergraduate students,” should make the list, and could even go for “1974: First female valedictorian, Marianne O’Connor,” but including “2000: First female member (Molly Kinder) of the Irish Guard,” goes way beyond politically correct. Especially when you don’t include “1920: George Gipp, first consensus Notre Dame All-American.”

Personally, I believe that Gipp has been gypped; his well-publicized class-cutting, gambling and night life apparently now makes him politically incorrect, but when you consider the life of the greatest player in Notre Dame’s history in its totality, including his deathbed conversion and his donation of much of his gambling winnings to widows or to pay the tuition of needy students, the Gipper deserves inclusion as much as anyone.

In short, I think the list again shows that although the University (which desperately wants to be known as a top research institution and not a jock school) realizes it must promote sports, especially football, it does so grudgingly. At best, it promotes the Protestant view that a good football team can be used as a platform to promote its more worthwhile endeavors; at worst football is merely a punchline to its elitist professors. To be truly Catholic, Notre Dame must embrace the view that playing football in a fair, but hard-fought way, is in itself virtuous, rather than just a TV show in which you can insert worthwhile University infomercials. Or, as Fr. Sorin would say, Notre Dame football itself can be a “force for good.”

Hey ND fans! Follow this link to get to Tom’s latest ND features. Follow him on Twitter and visit him on LinkedIn. Subscribe to his feed here and email him here. And for you diehard fans, check out Suffering Irish too.

You May Also Like