Shattering the Illusion

Good riddance to the idea that sports exist outside of our regular comings and goings; that they are removed from the disagreeable and awkward political sphere; that football games manifest on certain blessed Saturdays and Sundays without context and actual human participants. That idea was a dangerous (and ridiculous) lie, and we are better off puncturing that vacuum once and for all. College athletics, professional athletics, whatever — “sticking to sports” is a sheer impossibility, for this moment and all future moments.

Student-athletes at schools around the country are subject to the campus environment that has been built around them, but this is particularly true at Notre Dame. You’ve probably read about the risk that coronavirus poses to the program’s recruiting operation, because getting prospects on campus is so crucial. And it is! Zip code 46556 is home to a remarkably singular plot of land, not to mention an incredible academic community. Part of that is tangible — the main building! Touchdown Jesus! North Dining Hall! Lakes! — but those are just material expressions of the lore Notre Dame has constructed for itself. The people, the rituals, the school’s unique place in the American athletic and educational spheres — this is what matters, and what actually impacts how students experience the university.

Of course, members of the football team experience Notre Dame differently than “regular” students — there are training tables, summer workouts, national television appearances, etc. — but they remain a vital part of the Notre Dame community. And in a true community it is inarguably the responsibility of each member to do their part to ensure that the community as a whole meets a certain standard of living, one that allows for everyone to feel comfortable, valued, and able to thrive. We have failed.

Notre Dame loves to self-mythologize. I get it. It’s been baked into my brain literally since I could form memories, further imprinted when I first visited campus at the age of seven, and permanently sealed upon receiving a letter of admission almost a decade ago. That feeling, the Notre Dame-ness of it all, is a very real and powerful thing! Lord knows there are enough awfully cheesy quotes about the “spirit of the Irish” and how “no explanation is necessary” to speak to it. But I reject the idea that this exceptionalism is self-perpetuating, that Notre Dame’s greatness isn’t a living document in genuine danger of not living up to its promise. It’s a fallacy that results in another dusting off of that picture, you know the one, from nearly six decades ago, and not a whole lot more. We have failed.

We know what Notre Dame is. Notre Dame is 68% white, and 4% Black. Median family income is nearly $200k annually. 75% come from the top 20% of earners, while not even 2% come from the bottom fifth. Economic demographics are not enough to explain our failures, but that context matters. If you attended Notre Dame, at the very least, you’ve heard jokes about Black students and affirmative action and the probability of being part of a sports team. At the very least. Snide remarks like these are far from the most sinister instances of racism at ND, but serve as an example of how pervasive and non-taboo these toxic attitudes and microaggressions are.

It goes without saying that this “other-ing” of a vital group of our brothers and sisters on campus is harmful and unacceptable. If you want to talk blatant, overt acts of racism, we can do that too — there’s this, there’s this, there’s this… know that I could keep going, but instead will point you in the direction of a recent petition to university leadership that’s garnered more than 10,000 signatures to date. Read the petition. Read the comments. You’ll recognize Troy Pride, speaking to his own experiences with “racism and ignorance” on Our Lady’s grounds. Another notes: “These experiences worsen especially on game days when some visitors are a bit more explicit about their feelings toward Black people.” We have forfeited the right to use sports as insulation from the ills of the world. They’re here, right now, and they have been for quite some time. We have failed.

I desperately want Notre Dame to build on its recent success on the football field. I’m sure you do too. Doing so means that the coaching staff needs to recruit dozens of talented young Black men to join this community, year in and year out. It is imperative that we realize what we are asking of them. I cannot in good conscience ask them to join a space that does not prioritize their emotional and physical safety, where certain members are fine with denying their peers even basic dignity and respect. The university’s Catholic mission is compromised until tangible change on campus is enacted.

This is not to say the program itself has responded poorly to the situation at hand (when in doubt, defer to the Lady Irish). Starting with this was not very good, but getting here was better. The social team has done a good job centering athlete voices, particularly Black team members, while offering shows of solidarity from teammates, and they’ve weathered a storm of genuinely vile comments from folks who need not support Notre Dame athletics ever again. Jack Swarbrick correctly noted that the university has consistently fallen short of its ideals, even if the “firm commitments” therein strike me as unfortunately vague. Either way, the athletic department alone cannot guarantee a healthy and accommodating environment. The community as a whole must do better, including me, and including you. University leadership needs to know the status quo is wholly unacceptable.

The issues at hand are both very specific — NDSP, for one, is a private police force functionally unaccountable to those it supposedly protects and serves — and very, very broad, affecting every nook and cranny of this country. My experience in South Bend included an uncomfortable traffic stop with a try-hard SBPD officer who brimmed with arrogance and false machismo. This officer interrupted our (my three roommates and I, all white men) apparently overly hasty trip to Steak ‘n Shake to threaten that we “could have been pulled out of the car at gunpoint” if not for his judgment that we “looked like good kids.” I’m glad we got out of there without further escalation. And I shudder to think what pain that man has inflicted on South Bend residents who don’t look like we do. Racism is often that banal, but privilege is rarely that plainly stated.

It’s our responsibility to listen to those in our community who are most affected by structural racism and individualized discrimination, and our responsibility to amplify those voices and keep the pressure on community leaders until tangible change is enacted. It pains me that fellow alumni are sold one version of Notre Dame — an institution with a proud history, imbued with faith and a sense of inclusiveness and justice, and receive another. I do not get to enjoy Troy Pride’s Saturday contributions without acknowledging his struggle — that his classmates, or professors, or both, treated him as less than equal. We owe it to him and every current and incoming student of color to do much, much better. I implore university leadership to engage with those crying out for meaningful reform, and for the coaching staff to leverage their influence to help grease the wheels of change. Because who has the leverage here, really? The players do. Ignore that at your own peril.


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