– in Miami, Florida –
Notre Dame vs. Alabama for the national championship. The NCAA may make more money on tonight’s game than ever before, Notre Dame is ranked No. 1, God is in His heaven and all must be right with the world, no?
The spectacle of American college football, which culminates here tonight, is one that sometimes requires the pious to avert their eyes. The NCAA, a shameless cartel whose pursuit of the almighty dollar might cause a brothel-keeper to blush, knows a few things. Even if baseball is the national pastime, football is America’s game — as George F. Will once put it, violence punctuated by committee meetings. Commerce is now the great act of cultural unity. Wrap both in the romance of amateur athletics and loyalty to one’s school, and there is money to be made. Lots of it.
We still yearn to believe, and so we do not avert our eyes. Not tonight anyway. There will be plenty of eyes on Miami, for no team has as strong or enduring a following as Notre Dame, and Alabama is the reigning national champion. It’s only a 12-hour drive from Tuscaloosa to Miami, which is about as long as many Alabama fans devote to the weekly tailgate party.
As a Catholic priest and football chaplain (Queen’s University), there was no doubt that I would be coming to Miami for this game. At Notre Dame the players wear either green (the Fighting Irish) or blue and gold (Mary’s colours, and that of Our Lady’s university), but a Roman collar declares your allegiance just as well.
This year Notre Dame football celebrates its 125th anniversary. (For the record, Queen’s football is older.) It has been a Cinderella team, led by its heroic linebacker, Manti T’eo, a Mormon who has inspired the Catholic university with his strong faith and humility. And this year, Notre Dame did what has never been done before, finishing ranked No.1 both in football and in the players’ graduation rate (97%). More good news on that front: Stanford, third in the graduation tables, won the Rose Bowl.
Football is never just football at Notre Dame. Papal biographer George Weigel wrote of the “singular place that Notre Dame holds in both the American Catholic imagination and the American imagination about Catholicism.” Indeed, when President Obama was trying to drive a wedge between the Catholic faithful and the Catholic bishops, he knew that seducing Notre Dame was an indispensable part that plan. Notre Dame, often far too ready to be seduced by money and apparent prestige, let her virtue slip at first, but since smartened up and is currently suing the Obama administration for violations of religious liberty. That’s not Alabama’s fault, but it would make a Notre Dame victory all the more sweet.
Notre Dame football has been dominant in the national imagination even before their string of championships immediately after the Second World War. In 1924, the greatest sportswriter of all time, Grantland Rice, wrote of the “Four Horseman” of Knute Rockne’s backfield. In a time when biblical literacy was high and poetry was expected in the sports pages, the name stuck and Notre Dame, the legend — the Golden Dome, Knute Rockne, George Gipp, Ronald Reagan, Rudy, Touchdown Jesus and all the rest — was born.
Notre Dame football’s song is a hymn to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Alabama’s shrine is the memory of venerable coach Bear Bryant. The Crimson Tide is at a high point now, led by Nick Saban. It dominates the collegiate ranks, even more than in the days of the long-dead Bryant. Now coaches’ loyalty is for sale, often bought at obscene rates with taxpayer dollars. Nick Saban is the coach of the new era.
The last coach to win a national championship at Notre Dame, Lou Holtz, has been quoted constantly these last days. “God doesn’t care who wins tomorrow. But His Mother does,” he said a generation ago, on the eve of another big Notre Dame game.
It’s not good vs. evil in Miami tonight. No, it’s a game. But not just a game. Put on the green, the blue, the gold — or the clerical black. It’s no time to avert your eyes.
Notre Dame quarterback Andrew Hendrix drops back to throw a pass during practice, Thursday, Jan. 3, 2013, at the Miami Dolphins’ training facility in Davie, Fla. Notre Dame is scheduled to play Alabama on Monday, Jan. 7, in the BCS national championship NCAA college football game.