There’s an old cliche that the most popular college football team in
the United States is whoever plays Notre Dame. Like the Yankees of New
York and the Blue Devils of Duke, fans of the Fighting Irish believe winning is their birthright. Some programs see victory as being earned, Notre Dame sees it as being owed.
It doesn’t help that their head coach Charlie Weis bathes in this arrogance, walking around campus like the love child of Bear Bryant and Norman Schwarzkopf. He seems to believe that people should just genuflect in front of the Golden Dome and call it a day.
But this season, Notre Dame is staring at a historic futility that’s filling much of the college football world with joy. They are 0-3 for the second time in the 120 year history of the program. But it’s not just 0-3, it’s the kind of ugly 0-3 that has fans of the Kelly Green reaching for the Prozac and Jack Daniels: an 0-3 that saw them lose 38-0 to a Michigan team that couldn’t beat Appalachian State; an 0-3 that has seen them generate zero offensive touchdowns; an 0-3 where they’ve displayed teamwork worthy of the United Nations. Not surprisingly this has led to an unprecedented agitation among the faithful. Weis has seen his popularity dip from Knute Rockne levels to Newt Gingrich, going from the throne to the hot seat in record time. The man with the 10 year contract probably shouldn’t buy any perishable goods this winter.
Personally I take no pleasure or pain Notre Dame’s fall. When it comes to Touchdown Jesus, I’m an agnostic. But the gut-wrenching, internet hysteria, the fearfulness of – heaven forbid – having a lousy football team at Notre Dame, masks something far more tragic, far more familiar, in far too many cities – great and small. Unlike the Yankees, who play in the most arrogant city since Rome, and Duke, an isolated island in Durham, South Bend’s hysteria for the health of Irish football actually takes on a dimension of something rotten far beyond the world of “amateur” sports.
Football at the small, prestigious, Catholic school with a population of a mere 11,000, has become the hub on the wheel for the entire university and beyond. Notre Dame football according to the US Department of Ed, generates over 61 million dollars a year, with operating costs of only 4 million bucks. They also garner nine million dollars a year, every year until 2010 thanks to their exclusive and unprecedented TV deal with NBC, and are in the midst of a 60 million dollar relationship with Adidas.
But more than just on campus, Notre Dame football has become the seed of both identity and economic self-sufficiency for the entire community.
South Bend, Indiana, used to be one of those towns highlighted in black and white, static-flecked 1950s newsreels as a “city on the move.” People’s identities and sense of worth were solidified proudly by the knowledge that anytime people drove a Studebaker, or used a Singer Sewing Machine, they would have South Bend to thank. But the industrial belt rusted out, and today the only monuments to the glory days of yesteryear reside in the abandoned factories, metallic skeletons that rattle about the past.
Now according to the latest census, 16.7% of people in South Bend live below the poverty line, including 24.0% of those under age 1 and the number one employer, not only in South Bend, but all of St. Joseph’s County, is the university of Notre Dame. If Notre Dame is the beating heart of the region, football money is the aorta, the muscle, the very pump, that gives the city oxygen.
When 80,000 of the faithful that attend home game, $6.3 million dollars is on average generated into the economy of St. Joseph’s county supporting an entire network of small businesses and bed & breakfasts – not to mention an informal economy of vendors and sales people dependent upon the team’s continual allure.
The identity of the community begins and ends with the Fighting Irish. The economic is locked in a dance of death with the psychological. Now, as they lose it causes a crisis that has the feel of hysteria. What if the ratings drop – even more – for NBC? What if the BCS doesn’t come calling? What if the team actually goes winless? What would that do to the generosity of the big boosters? What would that do to attendance? What would that do to South Bend? What would that do to St. Joseph’s county? What would that do to the person selling bottles of cold tap water by the side of the road as tailgaters enter the parking lot? It feels criminal that a city’s sense of self is dependent on whether 18 year old Jimmy Clausen can actually take a snap from center without dropping the football. It speaks to the problem far too familiar that takes place when sports cease to be sports and become a substitute for urban policy, for economic development, and for our self-worth.
DAVE ZIRIN is the author of “The Muhammad Ali Handbook” (MQ Publications) and “Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports” . You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by e-mailing email@example.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org