SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Now is a good time to take a reflective walk with the president of the University of Notre Dame, through the woods behind his office in a golden-domed building, beside two lakes named after saints. A good time, and a serene setting, to ponder a sacred matter of profound moral implications: college athletics.
With the advent of another football season, the accusations of student-athlete exploitation continue to unnerve higher education — the growing demand that student-athletes share in the revenue they generate; the calls for N.C.A.A. reform; the push for unionization; academic fraud, sexual assaults, seamy cover-ups. It’s that 1932 Marx Brothers movie about college football, “Horse Feathers,” only without the laughs.
Nowhere are these questions of morality and justice more pressing than at this academic powerhouse with a football emphasis — or this football powerhouse with an academic emphasis. Notre Dame’s Catholic foundation informs everything here, down to the likeness of Jesus looming over home games, arms raised as if signaling a touchdown, or encouraging the faithful to do the wave.
A Catholic foundation informs everything at Notre Dame, down to the likeness of Jesus looming over home games, arms raised as if signaling a touchdown.Photo by: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Its president, the Rev. John I. Jenkins, 61, walking at the moment with head bowed in thought, may not be much of a football man; he is more Aquinas scholar than Rockne acolyte. But he can read the field. He sees the changes coming.
He knows that some detest Notre Dame’s storied football program, down to the constant use of “storied.” He also knows that for all its emphasis on nourishing the soul and improving the mind, Notre Dame is sometimes dismissed as just another exploitative enterprise — an Ohio State in priestly garb — reaping considerable revenue from the toil of football players who see none of the money.
Father Jenkins, a passionate defender of his alma mater, has considered the arguments. He agrees that the N.C.A.A. is struggling to find its role on a changed playing field. And, in what may come as a surprise, he suggests that student-athletes should be able to monetize their fame, with limits.
But he adamantly opposes a model in which college sheds what is left of its amateur ways for a semiprofessional structure — one in which universities pay their athletes. “Our relationship to these young people is to educate them, to help them grow,” he says. “Not to be their agent for financial gain.”
And if that somehow comes to pass, he says, Notre Dame will leave the profitable industrial complex that is elite college football, boosters be damned, and explore the creation of a conference with like-minded universities.
That’s right: Notre Dame would take its 23.9-karat-gold-flecked football helmets and play elsewhere.
“Perhaps institutions will make decisions about where they want to go — a semipro model or a different, more educational model — and I welcome that,” Father Jenkins says. “I wouldn’t consider that a bad outcome, and I think there would be schools that would do that.”
Pundits scoffed when Jack Swarbrick, the university’s athletic director, voiced similar sentiments this year. No way would Notre Dame — practically French for college football — set aside its national ambitions and settle for Saturday matchups against, say, Carnegie Mellon.
Think of it, they reasoned. Television and sports-apparel contracts would dry up, alumni generosity would decline, and the best athletes would go elsewhere. Notre Dame would no longer be … Notre Dame.
From left, Notre Dame’s athletic director, Jack Swarbrick; the Atlantic Coast Conference commissioner, John Swofford; and Notre Dame’s president, the Rev. John I. Jenkins.Photo by: Gerry Broome/Associated Press
The scholar-president disagrees. Notre Dame will remain Notre Dame no matter what, he says, fully aware that he is on the record.
Leader and Football Fan
The manicured Notre Dame campus provides ample evidence of the university’s rich tradition and considerable self-regard. A Knute Rockne statue outside the stadium. Items that include Notre Dame perfume (“The Lady Irish fragrance embodies the grace, pride and elegance of the Notre Dame woman while capturing her vivacious spirit and confidence”) in the bookstore. A drink at the Morris Inn called the Father Hesburgh Manhattan.
Embodying its more serious side is this slightly built graduate walking along a wooded path: John Jenkins of Omaha, class of ’76 and of ’78, with degrees in philosophy, as well as a doctorate from Oxford University. Ordained a Holy Cross priest here in 1983, he has filled several roles over the years, including professor, administrator and, for the last decade, president.
His intellectual strong suit might be more Summa Theologica — in which St. Thomas Aquinas presented five arguments for the existence of God — than the zone-blitz defense. But Father Jenkins describes himself as a football fan, one who finds worth even in defeat (“Losses teach more than victories,” he says) — the kind of fan, then, who drives rabid boosters to distraction.
Alums in Fighting Irish plumage will complain to him about the football team, as if, in addition to overseeing a university with 11,700 students and an endowment worth nearly $10 billion, he serves as offensive coordinator. “You sort of let it blow off a little bit,” he says, “and say, ‘There’s another game next week, next season. …’ ”
Father Jenkins is also more than conversant in the big business that is college athletics, including the many legal challenges to the N.C.A.A. model as a strictly amateur endeavor. An amateur endeavor for the athletes, that is: Notre Dame’s football coach, Brian Kelly, collects a seven-figure salary, while the university benefits from a national television contract, ticket sales, and an exceptionally valuable apparel deal with Under Armour.
The president rejects the notion that Notre Dame is morally obliged to share its football revenue with those playing the game. “I don’t think there’s a compulsion or some demand of justice that we do it,” he says.
His position — his North Star, he calls it — may be dismissed by some as trite, even convenient, but here it is: Notre Dame is an educational institution, and athletics, while diverting and instructive in its own right, is meant to serve the educational purpose.
A Knute Rockne statue outside the stadium, part of the manicured Notre Dame campus.Photo by: Sally Ryan for The New York Times
The $20 million spent by the university on about 320 athletic scholarships, he says, reflects a compact — one that many reading these words might well agree to, if they were athletically gifted teenagers. Simply put:
Commit to play football — or basketball, or soccer, or lacrosse — at Notre Dame for roughly four years. This will mean long hours, demanding practices, too much travel, considerable pressure and extraordinary discipline.
In exchange, you will receive tuition, books, food, living accommodations and the offer of a stellar education, as well as a powerful, appreciative network of alumni to help you in the great world beyond campus borders. If you are injured, or benched, or cut, your scholarship remains intact.
(As for injuries with repercussions after graduation, Paul Browne, a university vice president, wrote in an email: “We’d look at any such case individually, knowing that Notre Dame prides itself in a lifelong engagement with many if not most of the alumni. I know that many alumni have used our doctors, trainers and facilities when rehabbing from injuries suffered as professional athletes, for example.”)
Father Jenkins thinks this is a fair and just deal.
“I’d say that education is more valuable than however much money we might give you,” he says. “So focus on that. We’re going to do everything we can to help you be successful in getting that education.”
In other words, do not focus on matters unrelated to your education — how, for example, your image might appear in the university’s promotional materials.
Reputation for Academics
Notre Dame is regularly at the very top of the N.C.A.A.’s rankings of student-athlete graduation rates — well north of 90 percent. But various academic scandals have, depending on one’s view, either hurt or reinforced the university’s reputation for academics above all else.
Two years ago, for example, its starting quarterback, Everett Golson, was suspended for cheating on a test; he returned last year, graduated, and is now playing for Florida State in his fifth year of eligibility. And just before the start of last season, four Notre Dame players, three of them likely starters, were dropped from the team during an inquiry into academic fraud.
While some cite cases like these as evidence of the hypocrisy in the Notre Dame narrative, the university argues the opposite: Academics come first here, no matter how damaging it might be to the football season.
Father Jenkins knows full well the analogy of universities as ivy-adorned plantations, with student-athletes as indentured servants, or slaves, and college administrators, presumably like himself, as exploitative masters.
He knows, too, of the famous 2011 takedown in The Atlantic by the respected historian Taylor Branch, who forcefully argued against the prohibition of college athletes — all adults, he points out — from seeking compensation for their highly valued services. Branch dismissed the N.C.A.A. ideals of “amateurism” and “student-athlete” as “cynical hoaxes, legalistic confections propagated by the universities so they can exploit the skills and fame of young athletes.”
“A little overheated,” Father Jenkins says, speaking in a hesitant way that suggests a constant pursuit of precision. “So the thesis is: We exploit these young people for financial gain. Let’s just think about that.”
He says the football program, the only Notre Dame sport that consistently makes money, creates about $80 million in revenue a year — out of an annual operating budget of more than $1.4 billion. That football money is cycled back into athletics to support two dozen other sports, an arrangement that he says football players take pride in. Anything left goes to financial aid for students unrelated to the athletics program.
“If the claim is, you’re using football players to help soccer players play soccer, help fencers fence, help swimmers swim — O.K., if that’s the claim,” he says. “But that doesn’t seem to be exploitation.”
He adds: “We’re very clear about what our goals are, and we’re very clear about why we do it. If anybody doesn’t want to participate, that’s fine, but that’s what we’re about.”
Still, Father Jenkins supports recent modest reforms that are designed to ward off financial hardships for student-athletes. As part of the “Power 5” collection of elite college football programs, Notre Dame has embraced the “full cost of attendance” concept, which provides students on full athletic scholarships with additional money for personal expenses and travel.
Notre Dame playing Michigan in 2006. Father Jenkins describes himself as a football fan, one who finds worth even in defeat.Photo by: Chris Chambers/Getty Images
And while Father Jenkins opposes sharing revenue with the Notre Dame quarterback, say, based on the sale of jerseys bearing his uniform number — the university would just stop selling jerseys with numbers, he says — he would support the quarterback’s selling his autograph, or retaining an agent to help him monetize his fame, as long as Notre Dame did not become a partner in the endeavor.
“That seems to be where we’re going,” the president says.
Court Challenges to N.C.A.A.
The walk continues, beside St. Mary’s Lake and St. Joseph’s Lake, along a path that follows the Stations of the Cross, past the Old College, built in 1843, which evokes the earliest days of the university. The Rev. Edward Sorin, its first president, founded the university on several hundred snow-covered acres; Father Jenkins, its 17th, seeks balance on shifting grounds.
The talk turns to the recent court challenges to the N.C.A.A. structure. Last year, in the so-called O’Bannon case, a federal judge ruled that the N.C.A.A. was violating antitrust law by not paying athletes for commercial use of their names and likenesses. She also allowed for universities to create trust funds for athletes to use after their playing days, although those payments could be capped by the N.C.A.A. at $5,000.
That case, now under appeal, makes Father Jenkins uneasy. “That really does, it seems to me, move a student from student to employee,” he says. “And that, as I say, does some violence to that educational relationship.”
Then, last month, the National Labor Relations Board rejected a bid to recognize student-athletes at Northwestern University as employees of the institution, with the right to unionize and bargain collectively. An attack on the amateur model, Father Jenkins says. A close call.
Finally, there is the pending lawsuit filed against the N.C.A.A. and the Power 5 conferences by the well-known sports lawyer Jeffrey Kessler, who argues that the value of student-athletes has been illegally capped by athletic scholarships. If he prevails: an open market.
Or, as Father Jenkins puts it: “Armageddon.”
The Fighting Irish during the season’s first home game, against Texas.Photo by: Jon Durr/Getty Images
“That’s when we leave,” he says. “We will not tolerate that. Then it really does become a semipro team.”
He believes that the drama and popularity of college athletics are rooted in the fact that the student-athletes are amateurs. “If they make mistakes, you know, it’s not like they’re professionals,” he says.
But if a pay-to-play dynamic is applied to college sports, he suggests, something is lost. “If you go that semipro route, we’ll see,” he says. “But I’m just not sure that we’ll not end up just a second-tier, uninteresting pro league.”
Father Jenkins says that he could see two separate collegiate athletic associations — one following the semiprofessional model, the other dedicated to preserving what he calls “the essential educational character of college athletics.” In belonging to the latter, he says, Notre Dame would be just fine, financially and otherwise.
“If tomorrow you told me, you just can’t do what you want to do in athletics and you’re going to have to shut it down, and we would have club sports, something like that — I don’t think it would significantly impact the revenue,” Father Jenkins says. Some alumni and donors might revolt, he acknowledges. “But just in terms of a financial proposition, I don’t think it would impact the academy.”
“You made the ‘Hmmm’ there,” he says, detecting the doubt prompted by recollections of, say, Alabama-Birmingham trying to shut down its football program, only to have outraged supporters swiftly revive it. Isn’t talk of such a move at Notre Dame more a theoretical exercise than a practical consideration? An existential matter only, to be debated by scholars over a couple of Father Hesburgh Manhattans?
Father Jenkins’s tone faintly suggests: Try me. “Would someone who was going to give a gift to Notre Dame for a chair in philosophy or physics not give it if we did without football?” he asks. “I don’t think so.”
Having said all this, the president says he embraces what athletics — what football — does for the Notre Dame community. “It brings people back to the university,” he says. “It gives them a visible bond. They feel, week to week, a connection to the university. And that does interest them in the academy, in education, in student life.
“That is real.”
The walk through the woods concludes, and the president of Notre Dame returns to his office under the golden dome. He has many things on his mind. A coming visit by Justice Sonia Sotomayor of the Supreme Court. A state-of-the-university speech that needs to be written. And the season’s first home football game, against Texas.
A few days later, a national television audience and 80,795 fans in sold-out Notre Dame Stadium, including Father Jenkins, would watch Notre Dame’s quarterback throw for three touchdowns in leading the Fighting Irish to a 38-3 victory over the Longhorns.
The name of the young man at quarterback is Malik Zaire, and he wears Notre Dame jersey No. 8 — available for sale in the bookstore.