WASHINGTON — Yet another reason to revere Calvin Coolidge is that he thought the Chicago Bears were a circus act. In the 1920s, professional football was small beer compared to the already big business of college football. Which today prospers partly by selling beer: Watch the commercials that pay for the television contracts that have recently disordered many college football conferences and nullified what were solemnly called “traditional rivalries.”
On the eve of the national championship game between Notre Dame and Alabama, which probably will have two-thirds as many viewers as will the president’s inauguration, consider some curiosities of the sports-academia complex. According to Eric M. Leifer in “Making the Majors: The Transformation of Team Sports in America” (Harvard University Press, 1995), in the 1920s, the professional football Maroons of Pottsville, Pa., (population 23,000) drew such large crowds that the New York Giants chose to play them there rather than in Gotham. By the 1890s, Yale’s football receipts “accounted for one-eighth of the institution’s total income, an amount greater than its expenditures on law and medicine.”
Before the late Myles Brand was president of Indiana University he was a philosophy professor, and when he left Indiana to become head of the NCAA, he waxed philosophical about entangling a huge entertainment business with higher education. It is, he said, “essentially malfeasance” for university administrators not to make the most of the money-making opportunities that sports present: “Athletics, like the university as a whole, seeks to maximize revenues.” In doing so, college football teams have abandoned old conferences and embraced new ones with more lucrative television and other payouts.
College football has proved Karl Marx right about how capitalism dissolves old social arrangements: “… uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation … all fixed, fast-frozen relations … are swept away … all that is solid melts into air.” Blame college football’s turmoil on male beer-drinking truck drivers, and technology.
Young men are, in television-speak, a “coveted demographic.” Why? They buy beer and pickup trucks. But like everyone else nowadays, they tape television programs and watch them later, fast-forwarding through commercials. The technology that makes this possible has caused the explosive growth of lucrative television contracts for sports broadcasting rights: Men cannot fast-forward through live sports telecasts.
Monday night’s game should be sweet satisfaction for Father Theodore Hesburgh, 95, who managed to make athletic and academic excellence compatible. This year Notre Dame is the first school in the history of the Bowl Championship Series to rank first in football and first in the graduation rate (tied with Northwestern) of its football players. Notre Dame graduates 97 percent; Alabama 75 percent. In this, Notre Dame benefits from a self-imposed recruiting handicap — the two-semester math requirement for all freshmen that prevents the university from recruiting many blue-chip high school players.
Hesburgh’s achievement was hard-won. In the 1920s, the first golden age of sports superstars (Babe Ruth, Red Grange, Jack Dempsey, Bill Tilden), Notre Dame under Knute Rockne, who became coach in 1918, was known as a football factory. Rockne’s most famous player, halfback George Gipp (played by Ronald Reagan in “Knute Rockne: All American”), was a hard-drinking gambler who bet on Notre Dame games.
Beginning in 1941 under coach Frank Leahy, Notre Dame came to dominate the sport as no team has since, with six undefeated seasons, including 39 games without a loss, and four national championships. But in 1949, when Hesburgh was appointed the university’s executive vice president and athletics chairman, he set out to make Notre Dame “the Harvard of the Midwest,” which required de-emphasizing football. This required bringing to heel the imperious and mercurial Leahy, who flouted NCAA rules with illegal practices — and refused to speak to Hesburgh.
Leahy was a national celebrity. In 1956, Leahy would second the nomination of Dwight Eisenhower at the Republican convention. In 1953, however, the steely Hesburgh had fired Leahy — never mind the talk about Leahy leaving because of health problems. Since then, Notre Dame’s football fortunes have varied but its academic reputation has risen steadily.
Football has hardly lost its hold on the campus. The large mural on the library that overlooks the stadium shows Jesus with both arms raised and is famously called “Touchdown Jesus.” The statue of Father William Corby — a 19th-century president of the university — depicts him with his right hand held straight up and is known as “Fair Catch Corby.” And the statue of Moses with his index finger pointed skyward is “We’re Number One Moses.”