Monday, June 05, 2006

Getting Back to Ed on Notre Dame

Regular contributor Ed offered a few thoughts on my comparison between Notre Dame fans and Religious Right voters found, naturally, in this post on Mark Bradley's 2006 college football predictions. Since he has some interesting ideas and also since this topic hits on why I would root for Ohio State, Michigan State, Tennessee, or the Al-Aqsa Martyr's Brigade against Notre Dame, I thought it deserved the full treatment of a response. Plus, I figured that an all-out war between Ed's references to Berlioz and Poussin and mine to Lubyanka Prison and the Battle of Kursk would be an appropriate paean to the blogosphere. Either that or a cure for insomnia. Anyway, here is his post:

Oh those silly paranoid Notre Dame fans! What are they thinking?

The Media focuses a lot of attention on Notre Dame, because it has a large fan base and that equals lots of money. That's a pretty simple formula.

But simply because the media gets maximum coverage out of ND's football team doesn't preclude the notion of an "anti-Notre Dame bias."

ESPN, Sporting News, CNNSI etc. will run 300 million articles about Brady Quinn this fall. Many of them will be positive. But on the "serious" issues (Ty Willingham's firing, Notre Dame's continuing independence, Charlie Weis's extension etc.), one finds a decidedly similar tone to many of the articles written on these subjects. It usually reads like this:

Notre Dame is a privileged, insular little midwestern school living in the past. It has a holier-than-thou attitude towards other schools, but incident x clearly shows that it has always been, or has become,(here's where there is a slight difference of opinion) no different than the Miami's or the Ohio State's of the world. For all of its hot air about academics and Catholic values, Notre Dame is simply in it for the bottom line.

But try telling that to its fans, who are a bunch of uneducated working class stiffs who think that good ole Catholic Notre Dame is the center of the universe, even though they're probably too stupid to find South Bend on a map.

I exaggerate only a little bit (and yeah, I could a cite a ton of articles written by people at ESPN, CNNSI, to prove my point). I have not read a sportswriter who has had anything good to say about the Notre Dame the institution in a long, long time.

But that would make sense wouldn't it? The above manner of coverage combines two fundamental tendencies in the way in which educated people (or, at least, semi-educated with the pretense of worldliness) perceive the world today. There is the surface anti-elitist skepticism of any institution with an "exceptionalist" sense of itself. Yet, once one scratches a little, one finds a vigorous elitism towards those dumb enough to still believe in the old myths.

Hence the ubiqitous, healthy contempt for those dumb, anthem-chanting fundamentalist christians living in Texas Georgia who serve as the last bulwark for America's flagging sense of superiority.

So, I guess this is my roundabout way of saying that your Notre Dame/Religious Right analogy is spot-on, though certainly not in the way you intended. But maybe I've spent too many years in the happy, progressive halls of academia not to give a little credence to the persecution complex of traditional christians.

The general criticism I have of Notre Dame fans feeling like the media is out to get them is that same criticism I have of just about any fan base making the same argument: they're harping solely on the bad stuff. We always remember the articles that rip on our favorite programs and conveniently forget the articles that laud them. We remember when announcers say things that we feel are excessively critical of our favorite programs, but we forget when they give us too much credit.

Michigan fans, for instance, all remember Lee Corso shilling for Nebraska during the 1997 bowl season and a number still use that argument as a justification for the "Lee Corso hates Michigan" conclusion. That, however, just shows the danger of ever reading too much into one opinion. Sports media personalities are supposed to give opinions and their opinions of often zero-sum: if they're building someone up, they're tearing someone else down. That's what they get paid to do. That's also why just about every fan base thinks that Lee Corso has an agenda against them. I thought that Corso had it out for Michigan because of the '79 Michigan-Indiana game until I realized that it wasn't just Michigan fans who thought that Corso didn't like them, but that just about every other fan base in the college football world thought the same thing. And it's not just Corso. Michigan fans also remember the "M Stands for Mediocrity" article in The Sporting News' 1997 Preview, Billy Packer and Bill Walton's rants about the Fab Five, and Chris Fowler's regular complaints about Michigan fans (despite the fact that the Michigan fan base is typically mild-mannered in comparison to others). We don't notice that TSN has also had some very nice things to say about Michigan, or that Billy Packer is negative about just about everyone, or that Chris Fowler can be grumbly about other fan bases, as well.

My views on the media being "out to get" certain programs has also been colored by observing SEC fans. There is a contingent of the Alabama fan base that is convinced that everyone is out to get them, the national media included. The conspiracy is apparently fueled by Phil Fulmer and Tennessee's desire to keep Bama down as a program. Conversely, Tennessee fans were convinced that Tutorgate was part of ESPN's war on the Vols that started when ESPN decided to pimp Charles Woodson for the Heisman over Peyton Manning. It occurred to me at one point that: (1) the media can't be out to get both programs if both programs are enemies; and (2) ESPN and the rest of the national media have no reason to attack Tennessee or Alabama since both have large fan bases that are appealing to advertisers. The evident paranoia of certain Tennessee and Alabama fans caused me to point some fingers at myself and say "gee, I was pretty dumb when I decided that Lou Holtz was conspiring against Michigan to sway the coaches' vote in '97, wasn't I?"

As pertaining to Notre Dame, I'm quite sure that there have been negative articles about the Irish. I'm even willing to grant that there have probably been more negative articles about ND than most other programs because there is more coverage of the Irish than of any other program. However, the idea that Ed could state that "I have not read a sportswriter who has had anything good to say about the Notre Dame the institution in a long, long time" merely illustrates the point that he, like most fans, has an extremely selective memory. Perhaps he's forgotten this:

Or this:

Or this:

Do I need to mention the fact that most of the coverage of Notre Dame this summer has been about installing Brady Quinn as the prohibitive Heisman favorite or covering Tom Zbikowski's burgeoning boxing career? Shall I note that TSN picked the defensively-challenged Irish #1? Can I reference the media fawning over Jimmy Clausen's subtle college announcement as if he's the only blue chip quarterback to announce a college preference in years? (And nary a mention in the national media of "by the way, both of his brothers turned out to be overrated.") If this is an anti-Notre Dame bias, then what would a pro-Notre Dame bias look like? Campaigning to have Charlie Weis appointed as secretary general of the UN?

Ed mentions the coverage of Ty Willingham's firing and Charlie Weis' extension as evidence of the media being out to get Notre Dame, but the media's reaction proves my point. Jason Whitlock wrote a weak piece on Notre Dame giving Weis an extension as evidence of racism and then pretty much the entire college football media and blogosphere, including some unexpected defenders of the Irish, leapt to Notre Dame's defense to argue that Weis was a better candidate for an extension than Willingham was. I specifically remember every contributor on ESPN's college football page defending the decision to give Weis an extension and rightfully so, despite the superficial parallels between Weis and Willingham's first seasons.

And as for the attacks on Notre Dame's status as as exceptional institution, my response is "well, yeah!" Any institution that holds itself up to be on a higher standard than those with which it competes is asking for negative treatment. And yes, it's because many people are cynical towards any institutions that hold themselves out in that way. Maybe I've experienced one too many Abu Ghraibs and Kim Dunbars. And maybe it is a different, post-modern way of viewing the world. But that doesn't mean that the cynical worldview is uniformly wrong and that doesn't mean that there aren't plenty in the media who go the other direction and echo the "Notre Dame is different and better" line. Like for instance, the people who label every white Notre Dame quarterback as "Golden Boy." Why wasn't Danny Wuerrfel "Golden Boy"? Why wasn't Tom Brady "Golden Boy"? Why isn't Troy Smith "Golden Boy"? Why do Notre Dame quarterbacks get this special treatment that goes beyond their merits as passers?

Generally speaking, the media does as much or more to elevate Notre Dame to exceptional status as they do to tear them down, just like they build up every program at its apex (Florida State and Nebraska in the 90s; USC today) and then tear them down. It's a function of the way the media operates, not a function of some desire to hammer Notre Dame. Specifically speaking, Notre Dame gets built up more than any other program because of its history and popularity, so it should stand to reason that there'll be more negativity against the Irish as a reaction against the love-in that occurs every time they win nine games. That said, I just don't see the tear-down of Notre Dame being that intense, although to get back to my original point, I might be selective in thinking that.

1 comment:

ny1995 said...

I want to comment, but pretty much everything I'd say you already said.

I'd only add that as a small college in the middle of nowhere that has staked a lot of it's reputation on the results of votes (AP titles, Heisman winners) Notre Dame has probably benefited more positive media coverage than any other program in college football and maybe more than any other program in American sports history.