Monday, August 18, 2014

Myopia unchained

Of course Brian Kelly is shocked and disappointed. Of course this is a great big deal, this notion that four football players might have committed academic fraud at (gasp!) Notre Dame.

Because, you know, Notre Dame is Notre Dame, not Alabama or Ohio State or any of that other riffraff.

And so the head of the university, John Jenkins, showed up at a news conference the other day, and the athletic director, Jack Swarbrick, showed up, and the head football coach, Kelly, professed to be shocked and disappointed. And behind all of that, yet again, was this notion that Notre Dame is special, Notre Dame doesn't tolerate academic fraud, Notre Dame is an academic institution first and everything else second.

Implied, if not stated, was the exceptionalism that is woven so deeply into the tapestry in South Bend it can never be undone. Other schools might not summon the president of the university to a news conference to announce that four football players might have been caught cheating -- other schools might not have even called a news conference -- but Notre Dame is not, ahem, other schools. It is a universe unto itself, above the fray, unaltered by an athletic landscape increasingly indistinguishable from any other commercial enterprise in America.

If only that were so.

If only Notre Dame could be Harvard in the classroom and the Green Bay Packers on the football field, with none of the inherent contradictions that entails. But it can't. It's no more immune to those contradictions than any other Big Five football power; it's only better at willfully not seeing them.

In truth football at Notre Dame is just as much a business as it is anywhere else among the riffraff, and perhaps more so. The school has a long-running exclusive deal with NBC. It turns its student-athletes into snot-knockin' billboards for apparel companies just like any other school. And Kelly would no react like any other coach at any other football power if, say, Everett Golson came to him and said, "Coach, I've got a big poli-sci exam coming up, so I won't be able to make the Navy game."

A grinding head-on between Harvard and the Green Bay Packers would no doubt ensue. And Harvard would be the loser, because ... well, NBC's payin' us to put our best product on the field every Saturday, son.  Poli-sci can wait.  

In a way that's a sad thing, because in an ideal world the model to which Notre Dame aspires would be the model that drives big-boy college athletics. But the cold reality is, it doesn't. And if Notre Dame can't yet see it, plenty of its brethren are starting to.

Hence the NCAA proposal to allow the big-boy football conferences to play by different, more business-friendly rules. It's a welcome splash of common sense from an organization not well noted for it -- even if it's common sense that's been compelled by a growing sense that some great worm is turning beneath it, what with the outcome of the Ed O'Bannon case and the uprising by the serfs at Northwestern.

Who've decided that, if college football is going to rake in dough like a business, it should have to behave like a business in regard to its employees. And so, bring on collective bargaining -- and also, by no coincidence at all, a newfound regard for the economic well-being of the student-athlete.

And getting the scales to drop similarly  from a few eyes at Notre Dame?

Hey. One mountain at a time.

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