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Using football for post-election rhetoric

Gary Caruso | Thursday, November 18, 2004

Call it an academic addiction. Call it the post-election withdrawal syndrome. Political junkies like this writer try to unwind immediately following a presidential election but have difficulty with the “cold turkey” approach. Notre Dame’s football loss last weekend to Pittsburgh made that fact painfully clear to me as for the first time this season I had the opportunity to watch an entire Irish game. As events of the game unfolded, my mind raced to formulate rhetorical tongue-in-cheek rapid responses.

ND-Pitt games have always been a personal contradiction for me. Following graduation from du Lac, I entered the University of Pittsburgh and earned a masters degree in communications. My heart always lies with Notre Dame, but I attended Pitt while football great Tony Dorsett led the Panthers to football prominence and a national championship. Great football achievements marked both universities at the time, but their philosophies were as different as this year’s Republican red and Democratic blue presidential state atmospheres.

Notre Dame embodies everything “red” in this year’s electoral map – a private institution with a faith-based identity that espouses a strong vocal anti-abortion position, that maintains single-sex dormitories with parietal hours, has a hesitancy to officially recognize gay student or alumni groups, refuses to allow alcohol commercials during its televised athletic events except when participating in a league or post season bowl, is comprised of a larger percentage of students from higher income families, has one of the largest ROTC programs in the heartland of the nation, prides itself on a reputation for more challenging academic standards and has an overall clean-cut image.

Pittsburgh is everything opposite, or politically “blue” this election year – a secular public institution that recognizes birth control options at its health facilities, that observes a 24-hour visitation policy in coeducational dormitories, has an open-minded approach to recognizing campus groups, participates in the league that permits alcohol commercials during televised athletic events, is generally comprised of more working-class students from commonly much lower-income families, has a more diverse and urban composition, prides itself in returning to more challenging academic standards and has a bit of a bad boy image. So it did not surprise me when the Pitt quarterback thanked his “flipping” team live on television before NBC could beep over the remark.

Let’s face it, anyone can let a swear word slip from time to time, so I cannot denounce the Pitt quarterback. At an all-male Notre Dame I also learned a few “flipping” swear words. In fact, at Thanksgiving dinner of my sophomore year, I asked my parents to pass me the “flipping” salt during the course of our dinner discussion. I quickly caught myself, and my parents went on as though they had not heard me.

The University of Pittsburgh I attended with Tony Dorsett in the mid-1970s was the epitome of bad boy blue. For about three years as a graduate student, I taught several public speaking and presidential rhetoric courses. Fortunately, I never had to face the problem of how to work out a grade with an athlete who may have carried the university’s fortunes on his shoulders but rarely attended class.

I vividly recall one high-profile athlete collecting more than a thousand dollars worth of parking ticket fines on his green Monte Carlo that he insisted on parking along Fifth Avenue outside of the towers dormitories. While serving as a resident assistant on a coeducational floor in the towers complex, I witnessed the same athlete enter the facility after a night out and yell that he needed sex from anyone who might be able to assist him. So having shared that same atmosphere with Tony Dorsett, I personally found his comments disingenuous when he questioned the abilities of Pittsburgh’s head coach prior to the Notre Dame game.

It seems ironic to me that Irish fans must endure a similar disappointment we Democrats suffered two weeks ago. I can think of several positive ways to spin the substance of this football story. After all, Notre Dame’s players gave every ounce of effort to win – well, maybe number 8 should learn to use his body instead of his arm when trying to tackle the three runners I recall who blew over him. Also, that clean-cut Notre Dame image should have enamored at least one bowl official – well again, maybe number 15 should cut some of those curls dancing out from his helmet before someone tears it out by the roots while chasing a fumble. More importantly, Notre Dame could not ask for a more dedicated and savvy head football coach who builds character – well yet again, he was the same coach who refused to kick a field goal when presented with several opportunities during the Florida State game that turned the day’s headline into, “FSU shuts out ND at home for the first time in decades.”

It also appears that I am finally beginning my withdrawal from the spin mode since the effectiveness of my examples is fading. Any spin attempts to give an impression contrary to the absolute truth. But one thing is certain. The Irish, like the Democrats, will survive to win another “flipping” day.

Gary Caruso, Notre Dame ’73, served as a legislative and public affairs director in President Clinton’s administration. His column appears every other Friday. He can be contacted at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.