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Notre Dame's 'Mormon Moment'

In an earlier post about the moral and physical perils of football, especially big-time, big money teams like Notre Dame's once and future king of the hill, many commenters understandably grew defensive about any observations that might call into question the purity and nobility of the greatest witness to the faith in American Catholicism today: the Fighting Irish. (Sorry, Saint Dorothy Day.)One of the proofs offered for the moral efficacy of Notre Dame football was the indisputably powerful witness of linebacker Manti Te'o, whose play on the field has made him a Heisman contender and whose comportment off the field has made him an example of the way this Catholic university football program can "mold boys into impressive, spiritual, other-centered men."Wonder of wonders, it turns out that Te'o is a practicing Mormon who brought his class act to South Bend despite serious reservations about attending Notre Dame. CNN's Eric Marrapodi has the story:

Te'o gave voice to that struggle in his announcement in 2009 that he'd attend the Indiana college, which was broadcast live on ESPN. Ive prayed hard about it and my family has thought hard and long about it," he said.Graduating from Punahou High School in Hawaii, Te'o had his choice of the best football programs in the country. His Mormon faith was a serious factor in the decision-making process, said his former high school coach,Kale Ane."A lot of that weighed on him," Ane, who coached Te'o for three years, told CNN. "The final weight was getting his message out on a broader scale. A Mormon at a Catholic school was a good way to say, 'You can keep your faith no matter where you go.' "The University of Notre Dame's undergraduates are 83% Catholic, according to the admissions department."It hasnt been an issue," said Notre Dame Athletics spokesmanJohn Heisler, speaking of Te'o's membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. "I think there was more an issue when he was being recruited to him having access to his religion in South Bend and here on campus."The emphasis here is that this is a place of faith and it really doesnt matter what your faith is, Heisler told CNN, noting that he himself is not Catholic. Faith is really important to people here. Whether youre a Catholic or a Mormon, its a place of great faith.

Not only that, but the current No. 1 team in the nation is less than half Catholic, and has three other Mormon players. (And of course Notre Dame's faculty can also boast David Campbell, the top-notch political scientist of religion, and an LDS member.)So if Notre Dame wins a national championship, can Catholics really claim bragging rights?

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As a relative agnostic about college football, I'll nonetheless pass along one reason Notre Dame can take some pride in their football program---their players' graduation rate. Per the Chronicle of Higher Education:"Notre Dames football program this week became the first to earn a No. 1 ranking in the Bowl Championship Series standings while having the nations top graduation rate.The Fighting Irish had a 97-percent NCAA Graduation Success Rate in the most recent period. Thats more than 20 points higher than the results of any of the other top-five BCS programs."The article includes an interview with Notre Dame president, Fr. John Jenkins. http://chronicle.com/blogs/players/notre-dame-scores-a-first-no-1-in-foo...

Another graduate of Punahou High School in Hawaii is Barack Obama (class of 1979).

[Disclaimer: I'm a big ND sports fan. Follow all their teams. My TIVO is always recording some game or match throughout the year.] For me, ND's participation in the corrupt world of big-time college athletics is palatable only because they relentlessly use their sports program as a showcase for their Catholic identity and highlight their academic and service programs for under-privileged and marginalized people around the world. The promotional ads that air during the football contest are slick, well made and drive home the message that Catholicism at its best is inclusive and service oriented. Remember, ND is probably the only Catholic institution, except for many local Catholic hospitals around the country, that have a positive image and impact these days with Catholics in general and the public at large.Manti Te'o, with his simple faith and heart-warming personal story, is certainly something the Fighting Irish should find worth fighting for! I hope he "shakes down some thunder from the sky" and wins the Heisman Trophy puts his ethnic face in the pantheon of ND sports heroes. ND is arguably the single greatest achievement for Catholic ministry in American culture. We shouldn't forget that ND is a lot more than varsity football. While certain ND myths [like leprechauns, the Gipper, Rudy and certainly Touchdown Jesus] that are offered to the public are sometimes trite and hokey to the extreme, the wholesome image of ND as Catholics unashamedly engaged in the world, for the world, is about as good as it gets for the Catholic Church in America.Maybe this American success story is because the US Catholic hierarchy has nothing to do with the operations and direction of the university? ND was founded and is independently lead by the religious priests and brothers of Holy Cross. [Another disclaimer: I have no familial relation with ND President John Jenkins, CSC.] What is the take-away lesson THERE?!? Dolan, are you paying attention??? [Just one thing more: Now that ND will play for the national collegiate football championship, could we all be spared all the break-away camera shots of hulking football players lighting candles and thumbing their beads at ND's famous Lourdes-like grotto? The whole idea of asking the BVM for help in playing smash-mouth football just assaults all my religious sensibilities.]

"So if Notre Dame wins a national championship, can Catholics really claim bragging rights?"Doesn't this question apply to any non-ecclesial institution in which Catholics participate. If "Catholic" hospitals are highly rated and recognized in the field, but employ a high percentage of non-Catholics, can Catholics claim bragging rights? If "Catholic" schools and universities are celebrated for being good educational institutions, but have a high percentage of non-Catholic teachers, can Catholics claim bragging rights? These questions seem to indicate the illusiveness of claiming a "Catholic" difference for non-ecclesial institutions, but more importantly, they raise the suspicion that it doesn't really matter who claims "bragging rights" other than the people who have actually done the work. Ultimately, the "Catholicity" of a non-ecclesial institution only really matters to those for whom being "Catholic" matters, i.e. certain Catholics, everyone else only wants to know whether you're good at what you advertise yourself as -- a doctor, a teacher, or a football player.

Frankly, I don't think a convert is capable of understanding the emotional connection that many Catholics have with Notre Dame football. It's something you need to grow up with.As for Manti Teo, he is great. I just wish more Catholics lived their faith the way Manti lives his. But I'll also admit I was happy to see Theo Riddick kneel and make the sign of the cross after the USC game.

By the way, the history of how Notre Dame football grew to its prominent place in the American Catholic landscape is well told by historian Murray Sperber in his fine book, "Shake Down the Thunder."

I am a borned Catholic. My bro-in-law is a UND "subway alumnus.** " My nephew is a grad of UND.I personally feel no emotional connection to the place. But, then, I'm not one of the "many Catholics" in a lot of ways.** "Subway Alumni, the unofficial name given to those Fighting Irish superfans that never attended the University of Notre Dame. It is for those who believe in sacred Saturdays of Notre Dame Football and beer. Lots of beer." (http://www.thesubwayalumnishow.com/about-the-subway-alumni-show/)Somehow I don't think that this organization would exist for BYU.

"So if Notre Dame wins a national championship, can Catholics really claim bragging rights?"I recall 15-20 years ago, Jerry Krause, the much-despised general manager who presided over six Chicago Bulls NBA championships in eight years, controversially but, in my view, rightly claimed, "Organizations win championships". Regardless of the faith commitment of individual players, even superstar players, Notre Dame is a Catholic organization - in fact, a rather small Catholic organization in a Hoosier backwater - and it gets to claim kudos if it wins a national championship. IF it wins ...

Jim P: Notre Dame is Catholic? That's not what the bishops were saying a couple years ago...!Thorin: I do think there are some cultural aspects of Catholicism (or any cultural tradition) that one can't appreciate as much as a cradle-bred fan. I think I am a bit that way regarding parochial schools -- when I see them dragging down a parish and a community of faith I say get rid of them and use the resources to build up that community rather than trying to keep it on life-support for the nostalgia of a few alums who live elsewhere. But converts are funny -- they can also become "more Catholic than the pope" in their newfound enthusiasm. On the other hand, they can bring a fresh eye to traditions and assumptions, and maybe point out issues in need of correction or at least reconsideration. It's funny that such is the power of Catholic faith or culture that I have found myself reflexively rooting for Notre Dame, even as it has been terrible to mediocre these past decades, consistently overrated and winning outsized TV contracts and exposure on account of its legacy and loyal following in Notre Dame Nation. Yet I still root for the team quite strongly, even as it is important to bring a critical eye to the university's failings, or rather the perils of the football industry. Political conservatives certainly weren't shy about criticizing ND when Obama was invited to graduation in 2009; I wonder why so many are so defensive about the school now? That said, I'm a diehard Giants fan, and root and roar for Giants players to crush the marrow out of their opponents' bones. It's bloodthirsty, and I try to temper my darker impulses by considering the problems in the sport. I think those problems are, however, greater at the youth and college level, and for ostensibly Christian schools. It's not an either/or question of having football or banishing it. Though I wonder if Penn State should have scrapped its program. It was remarkable to see the same dynamic play out there that played out with the clerical abuse scandal in the church.

Go, Brigham Young University!

To David G:>>Though I wonder if Penn State should have scrapped its program.<<The determined success of those Penn State coaches and players who stayed on after the shattering news of the scandal (and severe punishment) was one of the more inspiring story lines of this year's college football season. The coaches didn't have to stay; nor did the players. They lost their first two games, but came back to have a very successful season (now over, as one of the punishments was loss of post-season championship and bowl game play). In doing so, they helped bring a shell-shocked campus back to life and on a path to healing.- Larry Weisenthal/Huntington Beach CA

I've heard a lot of my PA friends say the same thing Larry Weisenthal says: that the current Penn State coach and players are pretty inspirational.

I think I'd agree about Penn State -- there is so much of the local economy riding on the program, and unlike the Catholic situation for the most part, those responsible are being held accountable. Some will rally around the football program and see it as a vindication of Paterno, but what are you going to do? There will always be some of those folks. There's still the issue of exploiting young men and harming their bodies and brains for the gratification of the crowds. Does that give anyone pause?

David G. --I wonder if new equipment might be devised which protected the players. It might cause the game to change somewhat, but so what. As I see it, the violence of football just adds to the violence of movies and TV and helps make this the most violent nation on earth. And that's nothing to be proud about. In fact, the violence keeps us in our homes at night when we could be out having fun with neighbors.

And the man accused of raping Lizzy Seeberg gets to play in a national championship: http://deadspin.com/5897809/this-is-what-happens-when-you-accuse-a-notre.... If I heard that he had his brain scrambled playing the game my feelings wouldnt even be mixed.I love sports, including football, but that grownup people look to athletes to affirm ANY part of their identity is always amazing to me.

As someone who began his academic life in a large state university/football factory I can tell you that the difference between ND and FSU is the difference between night and day. Players first must meet our academic standards; they take real courses in real majors; if they fall afoul of the ND code they are adjudicated by Student Affairs and not the athletic deparment; they graduate with degrees. Are they perfect? No more perfect than the usual undergraduate.

Let's not forget that American football is essentially a very violent game where men are armored much like gladiators in the Roman colosseum all in the service of "bread and circuses" for the masses addicted to a prurient form of violence. [I'll spare you all the sexual metaphors that football employs.] ND is no exception here.While the comeback story of this year's Penn State Nittany Lions certainly tugs at our more romantic, even maudlin, heartstrings, I still think given the enormity of the corruption and complicity of PS administrators and coaches, especially Joe Paterno, in the wanton rape and sodomy of children over decades should have been remediated by banning football for at least several years.I believe that PS missed an opportunity to break the cycle of addiction and dependency of educational institutions to the demeaning complex of money-violence-sports.PS is not alone. ND itself has a very sad history of protecting and shielding its athletes who cross the line in drug and alcohol abuse and violence to women. As cited above, Lizzy Seeberg is dead, a tragic sequela to her assault by a ND footballer, and her subsequent suicide. Her unnamed assailant [whose identity was kept confidential] was eventually able to resume his college career and returned to the play football under the watchful of eyes of Touchdown Jesus. How wrong is that? Kinda gives me the creeps watching ND sports teams on TV.

Another reminder of what we are rooting for:http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/29/sports/ncaafootball/time-runs-out-but-...

Firing a Coach, at a Price, With Little Evidence the Move Pays OffBy JER LONGMANFor an especially lucrative occupation, one might consider becoming a fired college football coach.The latest symbol of the college football arms race is not the coaches salaries themselves but rather the money that university officials are spending to buy out those huge contracts when a coach falters.After Tennessee fired its coach last week, the universitys chancellor said the athletic department would forgo $18 million in contributions it was to make to the university over the next three years for academic scholarships and fellowship programs. Instead, some of the money will be used to pay the severance packages of the coach, Derek Dooley, who is owed $5 million, and his staff, which is owed a reported $4 million if it is not retained. Dooley had four years remaining on his contract.On Sunday, Auburn fired its coach, Gene Chizik, two seasons after the Tigers went unbeaten and won the national championship. Auburn said it owed $11 million in buyouts to its coaching staff, including $7.5 million to Chizik, who had three years left on his contract. He is to be paid $208,334 a month for the next 36 months. The money could have been used to fund other sports.Its shameful, said Raymond D. Sauer, chairman of the department of economics at Clemson University and president of the North American Association of Sports Economists. We can understand the market forces at work, but all that money being burned up that way is a high cost of doing business.Sauer said there was a gusher of money in the Southeastern Conference. But its limited, he added.Coaches salaries have soared in recent years at colleges throughout the country, often reaching several million dollars a year, as university officials have intensified efforts to claim some of the sports growing riches that come from billion-dollar television contracts, merchandise sales and alumni contributions. But college officials do not seem encumbered by the large contracts; rather, they appear willing to pay the coaches handsomely to go away and make room for new hires despite little evidence that coaching changes generally result in better teams.

Theres still the issue of exploiting young men and harming their bodies and brains for the gratification of the crowds."These words could only be written by someone who has never been close to a football program. But why take the time to learn before accuse?

Since my previous postings above on this blog, I have become aware of some very disturbing information: Melinda Henneberger writing in yesterday's Washington Post (12/5/12) discussed despite being a ND alumnae her decided lack of enthusiasm for ND's playing for the national football championship this January 7.Henneberger has reported extensively in NCR about the circumstances surrounding the suicidal death of Lizzy Seeberg, a St. Mary's College student, on September 10, 2010 after being sexually assaulted by a ND football player.Henneberger reports that ND officials have conducted a campaign to denigrate and demean the character and memory of Lizzy Seeberg in an attempt to shield the university from negative publicity and to this day refuse to speak about the case with the press. The ND football player assailant has never been named publicly. Henneberger seems to imply in her article that the ND football player in question, who has never received any sanctions from law enforcement officials or from ND administrators or football coaches, is still on the ND football team and will ostensibly compete in the national championship game. According to Henneberger, ND officials have acted with total disregard for the crimes committed on their campus, and it would appear they have attempted to bury this story in order to protect ND, its athletes, and its athletic programs.The knowledge of this ongoing story gathered from Henneberger's reporting is distressing, disheartening and disgusting. ND and its athletes who are given a national stage to perform on should be held to higher standards.Whatever the demons of depression and despair tortured her and eventually overwhelmed her, Lizzy Seeberg is dead. Her assailant will now play for the national collegiate football championship. At the very least, the public should know the full story and identities of all the people involved in this affair. My awareness of this state of affairs lurking in the background have soured any elation and enjoyment that I as a ND sports fan have had this season as they have marched to the national championship game. I for one can not "Cheer, cheer for old Notre Dame ..."Isn't Lizzy Seeberg's life and death worth more than ND football glory?

Jim, that's a powerful commentary -- Melinda's column, and her reporting on these scandals, has been really admirable. It's what journalists -- and Catholics -- should do. How to reconcile these things with being an ND fan? Is any program that clean? Is it possible in big-time collegiate sports to have a competitive team and still keep a school's soul, so to speak?

There's no hero like a sports hero: http://goo.gl/xtx2S

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About the Author

David Gibson is a national reporter for Religion News Service and author of The Coming Catholic Church (HarperOne) and The Rule of Benedict (HarperOne). He blogs at dotCommonweal.