Mammon and Uniquity

A friend suggests as a solution to the woes of the University of Notre Dame that the president, Father Jenkins, and the football coach, Charlie Weis, should exchange jobs. No one is likely to mistake the one man for the other, but the malaise of the football team and what some of us grumpy old men see as a free fall into secularism on the part of Notre Dame are oddly complementary. The link is money.

Other Notre Dame sports flourish without any need to turn those who guide young people over floor and ice and field into instant millionaires or millionairesses. The football coach’s “package,” already obscene, was remarkably expanded after his first year with an inherited team. He was given a ten-year extension of his contract with an undisclosed increase in the annual emolument. A decade suggests decadence. The dollar sign seems to hover over the campus like the Goodyear Blimp, overseeing the flow of money into the university coffers. As one who is now in his 54th, and final year, on the faculty, the adoption of the corporate model is distressing.

Education, by its very nature, is predicated on a conception of the human person, with implications as to what life is all about, what its purpose is. A Catholic institution adds to the once common assumption that the student is not being trained to be a consumer, to state the goal negatively. The positive statement is that truth and beauty and the good should be the guiding stars of life. Elsewhere, that draws snickers now. Truth? An influential administrator of a once-respectable institution dismissed truth as irrelevant to the work of the university. Surely no Catholic institution could share such indifference to the telos of the mind, the faculty that sets humans off from members of every other species. What sense could then be made of the stirring text in which the Son of Man is described as the Way, the Truth, and the Life?

The apparent intent of piling millions on an untried football coach was to return Notre Dame to national prominence in that sport, to be in the top ten, to secure a lucrative post-season bowl bid, to win the equivocal “national championship.” The result has been ironic. The last team that trounced us has recorded more victories this year than Notre Dame has in the last two. The coach’s solution was to set off on yet another recruiting effort, luring young men to South Bend by describing the team as a feeder to professional football. Play for Notre Dame and end up with a wily agent who will secure you a multimillion dollar contract. If success rather than more failure follows from that effort, Notre Dame football will be indistinguishable from other football factories.

One doesn’t have to be a president or a coach to be baffled as to how that goal is to be reached. But anyone can ponder whether it is a worthy one. On the academic side, the mission of the university is fairly well stated. But the way the university is conducted is often in dubious harmony with that mission. It is not only coaches – well, one anyway – who are seen as motivated primarily by money. The faculty is replenished with that same vulgar assumption scarcely muted. The need, we are told, is for faculty salaries to be competitive. Once men and women joined the faculty of Notre Dame, not because they thought it was competitive with other putatively similar places, but because it was unique.

Recently Otto Bird, founder of the Program for Liberal Studies, told me what he received in salary when he came to Notre Dame in 1950. I know what I received in 1955. Both Otto and I came to Notre Dame from other universities, but the decision was not made by weighing compensation. Lefty Smith, who was our first hockey coach, told me of his interview with Father Joyce. The two had shaken hands and Lefty was headed for the door when Father Joyce called after him, “By the way, what do you want in salary?”

It is melancholy to have lived into a time when Notre Dame describes itself primarily as “a great research institution.” Research has its native habitat in the sciences; its application to the liberal arts is more equivocal than analogous. A liberal education is far more a matter of catching up with the past than regarding it as in need of premature efforts to supplant it. The slow accumulation of the wisdom of the race is only begun in four years. It is a lifelong quest. Cardinal Newman’s Idea of a University and John Paul II’s Ex corde ecclesiae remain the best guides for a Catholic university. To take Ivy League schools as models of what we should be is having predictable results. We would be wiser to follow their lead in avoiding the professionalization of sports.


Ralph McInerny was a writer of philosophy, fiction, and cultural criticism, who taught at Notre Dame from 1955 until his death in 2010. He was among the founding contributors to The Catholic Thing.