I am fat, old, feeble, deficient in athletic prowess and ignorant about sport. As regular readers of Times Higher Education will know, I endorse the dictum of Robert Hutchins, the legendary president of the University of Chicago - “When I am minded to take exercise, I sit down and wait until the mood has passed” - except that I am never minded to take exercise. So why has a forthcoming sporting contest filled me with childish excitement?
On 7 January, my institution, the University of Notre Dame, will take part in the final American football game of our season, challenging for the Bowl Championship Series National Championship. It is hard for readers in Europe to understand how much this means. More fans follow “college football” - as we call it here - than any other US sport, professional or amateur. Huge financial outcomes depend on the games, because television rights are worth many millions of dollars and victories unlock alumni enthusiasm and unblock donors’ logjams. Our game will have a TV audience of hundreds of millions. Nothing in other countries’ university schedules - not even the Boat Race - galvanises a nation on anything remotely approaching the same scale.
More than money and popularity depend on our fate, however. If we win, we shall strike a blow for mens sana as well as corpus sanum. We shall vindicate honour in sport and restore the world’s faith in the compatibility of athletic and academic excellence.
Notre Dame has remained unsullied by the scandals that have convulsed college football in recent years. Universities have recruited bruising hulks whose pretensions to scholarship are risible. They have traduced academic standards by giving footballers “special” programmes of study - specially feeble, specially easy, specially slack. They have introduced “sports studies”, or similar weaselly nonsense, and, in effect, given players credits for being players. They have relaxed standards of attendance in class and compliance with assignments. Players’ families and agents have practised shamateurism. It recently emerged that Cecil Newton, the father of Cam, the young man who won the Heisman Memorial Trophy in 2010 (the sporting authorities’ annual award for the outstanding player of the year), had demanded more than $100,000 in fees from a university that tried to recruit his son.
Pennsylvania State University has a grand record of footballing success, which the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the sport’s governing body, annulled last year when Jerry Sandusky, a former assistant coach, was convicted of sexual abuse of minors on Penn State’s premises. Some university officials knew some of the allegations long before the official arraignment, but kept quiet - allegedly, so most commentators opined, for fear of impeding the team’s success.
Some universities have acted, in effect, as recruiting agents for the professional game, hardly caring whether their athletes are prepared for anything in life beyond football. Earlier this season, Notre Dame travelled to and trounced the University of Oklahoma, which had lost only twice at home in the previous decade. Oklahoma - with, it seems to me, breathtaking defiance of everything a university ought to stand for - graduated only 47 per cent of its footballers last year. Notre Dame graduated 97 per cent.
This year, for the first time since 1993, we top the national rankings in football excellence; as usual, we also lead the league table for student athletes’ graduation rates. I have had several of these laudable young people in my classes and can testify that we make them work as hard and hold them to the same standards as their peers. In an interview, the president of Notre Dame, Father John Jenkins, was asked which he would prefer: the BCS National Championship, with all its dollars, or the merely spiritual satisfaction of achieving a 100 per cent graduation rate.
“That’s an easy one,” he replied, “it’s got to be the second.”
The interviewer commented: “I doubt if a lot of college presidents would say that.”
Notre Dame has refused to relax academic ambitions for student athletes, or to warp our academic values. That is why the pundits said we would never win again, never recover the glory days from the 1910s to the 1980s when this small, Catholic university regularly beat the white Anglo-Saxon Protestants and the big state institutions at their own game. But we never lost faith that brains and brawn could coexist and, after a decade of disappointment, our team has fought back this season to beat a series of more highly fancied, bigger, richer, slicker opponents. It has climbed, painfully, perilously, through many hard-fought contests to the top of the rankings as the only undefeated team.
In the championship final we face the title-holders, the University of Alabama, an institution with three times as many students. To its credit, Alabama has put a lot of public emphasis on academic standards for its athletes, but it is still more than 20 percentage points behind us in graduation rates and has admissions standards, based on standard testing, about 30 per cent below ours. On paper, despite a rogue defeat earlier in the season which made them yield top place in the rankings, they have a bone-crushingly stronger team. So please, as the words of our fight song adjure, “Cheer, cheer for old Notre Dame” on 7 January. We cannot win by football alone. We need to summon up superior spirit, superior morale, and above all something the whole academic world should cheer: superior brainpower.