Is tradition worth defending?
In light of the current discussion regarding Jumbotrons, field turf, towels, etc.,one might wonder if traditions are worth keeping. I think they are, but first I would like to address some of the ancillary objections that clutter the issue:
1.) Football is simply a form of entertainment, and people who attach so much importance to it should worry about more important things.
Remember that gut-punched feeling you had when BC kicked the game winning field goal in '93 or after the Bush push? Those visceral reactions were not because the games were not entertaining. People get very invested in sports teams, including college football teams, not because they are childish, but because because developing allegiances to and interest in competetive teams is part of a healthy psyche. It may be some vestigial survival instinct that creates affinity for the strong and successful, or perhaps a variation of that affinity among clans that bred fierce loyalty to the same tartan. Maybe it is that people naturally appreciate athletic skill and take pride in the accomplishments of teams and athletes that share come common trait with themselves, or maybe it is something else. Whatever it is, having a rooting interest in and emotional attachment to warriors and competitors is universal; it is the norm, not a frivolous vice or pointless pass-time. There is an aesthetic to athletic competition every bit as compelling and natural as that of fine art, or fine wine.
2.) The reason that colleges support football is because it promotes physical activity, sportsmanship and teamwork.
Bullshit. Football is an enterprise, an undertaking with clearly defined and observable criteria for success and failure. It is a contest where a contestant's efforts are actively opposed by others, played in the elements, where the outcome depends on admirable qualities and virtues, such as determination, athletic talent, strategy, effort, dedication and courage. Every season, every game and every play is a contest with a winner and a loser. People are drawn to football for the simple fact that many important experiences in life produce victors and vanquished, and the timid masses that eschew competition produce more of the latter than the former. Serious young men play football and other sports, with or without formal college programs, because serious people are attracted to endeavors in which success requires the same qualties as do more consequential pursuits in life. Furthermore,many of the memorable and meaningful events in a person's life are accompanied by some pleasant emotion, but there is one feeling tha arises almost exclusively from a successful competitive enterprise, from honorable struggle: the feeling of triumph. True competitors know that this is not the same as the feeling of accomplishment one gets from other worthwhile achievements, such as learning to play a musical instrument or acing an organic chemistry final. The compelling feeling of triumph is an element of the the very basic human drive to excel, and many people, perhaps the majority, identify with and support serious competitors for the chance to vicariously share that feeling of triumph. There is a joy in victory that is unique. It may not accompany the most import events in one's life, but it is joy nonetheless.
Competition is the method that nature has chosen as its preferred mechanism of optimization. It is inescapable and, in fact, desirable in life. The deluded fantasists that perceive all competetion as barbarian folly mistake a very basic reality of life. Knowing how to compete is an element of knowing how to succeed, and so it is only natural that people take an interest in endeavors that highlight competition.
3.) College football is just a minor league with no unique value per se.
College football is sui generis. The highest paid government official in many states is the flagship university's head football coach. Many of the largest sports stadiums in the world are college football stadiums. One would be hard pressed to identify the same scale, the same rabid interest in minor league hockey or baseball that is apparent in college football. The interest in intercollegiate football arises because the game is played by college students. Student-athletes project an image, that of vigor and promise. We project on to them those virtues we value such as fair play, courage and good sportsmanship. We are proud when when of "our" players is recognized for his generosity or academic achievements, or commitment to principle. College football is interesting to us because its players make for fine protagonists. We cheer for them because we want to think they are like us and consequently that they are as admirable as we can make them. This is why college football needs teams like Notre Dame and Navy and Stanford. It needs protagonists, good guys to justify our interest and our allegiance. This is also why the cheaters, the corner cutters, the shady dealers need to be marginalized. They want the benefits of winning something of value, but it is a value that they actively denigrate. They need others to maintain the image of the honorable student-athlete, the admirable competitor, so that they can usurp an unearned glory. The cheaters are parasites. There is a reason why the man who ran the fastest 100 meters at the 1988 Olympics was not the 100 meter dash champion. Without the ideal of the student athlete, college football is professional wrestling or the XFL.
4.) Excellence in college football is a symptom of misplaced priorities.
This is a resentful con created by effete snobs. The fact that anyone would be embarrassed by excellence in any honorable endeavor bespeaks a smallness of spirit, a petty bigotry professing that the great talents that God gives some people are simply not worth encouraging. Life does not always give us the choice of what we may be good at, and there is no shame in striving for honorable excellence wherever the opportunity presents itself. The notion that academic excellence is somehow enhanced by embracing mediocrity in other associated endeavors is a creed of the timid, the superficial, and the ludicrously image-conscious. To them, it is much easier to slander athletic excellence than it is expend the effort to achieve and maintain it.
So, at the very least, we can assume that college football as an institution, while not the most important thing in life, is not frivolous or trivial. It is worthwhile, it is valuable and is a fairly big part of some people's lives. Sure, there are people who over do it, and those that lose perspective, and others that are just plain nuts, but an appreciation for the sport and interest in a particular team is not pathologic. It is an American version of human behavior that has existed throughout history,and in virtually every culture. Of course, college football has a well documented seamy side, one that is at times destructive and ugly, and this is one of the reasons that tradition matters.
5.) Notre Dame is no different than anyone else.
Of course Notre Dame is different; not necessarily better or worse, but definitely unlike any other institution. Successs in football was coincident with the growth of Notre Dame from a provincial midwestern college into a national university. This may be embarrassing to some people who simply refuse to recognize that athletic excellence has any place on a college campus, but that is the simple fact. And Notre Dame is not different simply because it has national championships, Heisman trophy winners, a familiar fight song and has played in some of the most iconic college football games ever. Notre Dame is different because its values are different, because it at least tries, here and there, with more or less success, to be Catholic when the prevailing fashions are otherwise. It is different because of affection for the grotto, and observance of mass in the the dorm chapels. It is different because it refuses to make graduation rates a casualty of recruiting rankings, or strand players in sham majors. Notre Dame is different because it at least tries to be the protagonist, knowing that it it will slip here and there and that doing so will earn it the scorn of dumbasses who don't appreciate the necessity of at least trying to do things the right way. Notre dame is different because it has just enough die hard fans that demand not only wins, but ethical wins, wins that give us more to be proud of than just the final score. Notre Dame is different because it has to be; because it could not be Notre Dame if it was just like everyone else. Those that love Notre Dame will understand this apparent tautology.
6.) Tradition is just an ephemeral form of nostalgia.
No successful institution survives for any appreciable length of time without developing some tradition, just as no person survives to old age without acquiring at least some wisdom. Traditions survive for the simple reason that they are serve purposes, even though we sometimes lose sight of what those purposes are. Traditions arise to commemorate past triumphs, and thus serve as a model for those that follow. Traditions commemorate significant events, good and bad. They remind of past hardships and past glories. They are a connection across time to those who shared the same values, and same goals, people who were like us in ways that mattered. We (those who have the same view of tradition as I do) observe traditions to declare our appreciation and to honor those who won those long ago victories that we still claim as our own. We observe traditions for the same reason we put Notre Dame license plate holders on our cars or wear replica jerseys or post on message boards: to affirm we are part of something meaningful, that we understand something about our team that is just a little beyond the comprehension of outsiders.
The traditions of Notre Dame are rituals of homage; on the one hand for a glorious past and on the other hand for a noble game. We observe some traditions to maintain continuity with past glories: the gold helmets, the Victory March, the Irish Guard. We observe other traditions out of respect for the game; so that the focus is on the contest between worthy adversaries and not on garish sideshows and cheap gimmicks. We think football is worthwhile, so we don't detract from it, as a matter of simple respect. Few programs could pull off traditions of simplicity, of venues devoid of neon and noise, contrived drama and tacky gimmicks. Die hard Notre Dame fans will be forgiven if they think her traditions lend a certain unique dignity.
Admittedly, this post is over the top. There is more to life than football and tradition after all. But sometimes you have to go out on a limb and make an unabashed appeal for something that means something to you.
Because if you let some valuable things slip away, they may be gone forever.