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Notre Dame’s football carnival

| Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Football. If you’ve been around Notre Dame long enough, the word evokes the image of blue-and-gold-clad gladiators streaking through the opposing end zone in the nick of time. Or two opposing lines of burly young men locked in various forms of pushing and grunting under the eyes of tens of thousands of fans.

Football is big business at Notre Dame. To the initiated, such a statement might prompt a “well, duh” or even seem to be an insult to their intelligence. But it wasn’t until several weeks into the past school year — my first year on campus — that I learned, quickly, that people here are really, really, really into football. Perhaps the alumni, townies and random fans moreso than actual students.

I mean, I had watched “Rudy” as a kid. I bawled my little eyes out in my grandparents’ living room when, in the last scene of the movie, Rudy magically comes on the field to sack the opposing quarterback before being gloriously led off on his teammates’ shoulders. And, yes, I saw the big and shiny stadium during prospective students’ weekend and noted how the nice new student center and even nicer gym were attached to it. Presumably, I was told, that these moves were made so the University could tap into donor money linked to football.

Still, I wasn’t prepared to watch campus turn into a carnival on home game days. All right, maybe not a carnival, but some weird hybrid of a Labor-Day-weekend-tourist attraction and a megachurch picnic. Not even in my 11th floor library carrel was I safe from the marauding packs of the green-clad fandom, their eyes darting from the walls of my study room to the stacks of dusty books as if they were making the rounds of some must-see foreign museum. On non-game days I’ve had people come up to me wide-eyed and jittery to ask if I had tickets to sell.

Personally, I can’t sit through a game of football. Too many breaks, too many bodies on the field at the same time and, without the visual aids you get on TV, I invariably get lost. More interesting to me, though, is the boatloads of money football makes for Notre Dame.

According to The Business Journals, in 2017 football brought in roughly $4.64 billion in profits for U.S. colleges, based on an analysis of financial data submitted by approximately 885 institutions with school-sponsored teams.

Notre Dame has the “crown-jewel” of college football programs. At $89.6 million in profits, Notre Dame ranked fifth in total operating profits. But on a per-student basis, thanks to its relatively meager undergraduate student population of around 8,500, Notre Dame has no equal, raking in almost double the profits of second-ranked Texas Christian University at $10,571.

Notre Dame’s football team is responsible for 73.42 percent of the University’s total athletic department revenue. Much of that is thanks to a television contract with NBC, which is reportedly worth $15 million per year and runs through 2025. Because Notre Dame is independent of any football conference, they get more juice out of selling broadcasting rights than other teams.

Can you imagine if Notre Dame actually started winning championships? Touchdown Jesus would jump off the library wall and walk across the pool to get a better look. The English Department would get its own building, complete with state-of-the-art massage therapy chairs and a top-security mausoleum with the remains of Edgar Allen Poe. Mendoza would install two helicopter pads on its roof connected to a five-star penthouse for top donors. The university would strike down its bogus six-semester-on-campus requirement and end parietals.

You could feel the excitement in the air last year when the Fighting Irish came closing to bringing home a title following an undefeated season. And the money, I was told by an acquaintance who worked in fundraising, was pouring in. How much hasn’t been reported, though, and we probably won’t know for at least a few months.

But amid the football extravaganza, and its grandiloquent contributions to the $13.1 billion endowment, my graduate stipend hasn’t budged. Still just above the poverty line for a household of three. Still deferring my undergrad loans. Notre Dame undergrads still graduate with $25,860 in student loans, on average.

Of course, it’s not like the players are getting their fair shake, either. University President Father John Jenkins has been a vocal opponent of paying players for bringing in the big bucks. Sure, they get to enjoy the social status of demigods for as long as the ride lasts, and a shot at making big money in the pro-leagues. Yet, one crippling injury can end all that, and the accumulation of subconcussive blows can lead to serious neurological problems down the line.

No, I’m not salty about this whole situation. I’m too jaded a-la-millennial to be salty. OK, maybe a little. Maybe I’m just trying to find something provocative to write about that doesn’t involve leggings or the yet-to-be-covered racist Columbus murals in the Main Building. Maybe my next column will be a peaceful meditation on yoga and beer, which apparently is a thing in certain hipster neighborhoods of Chicago. Go Irish!


Oliver Ortega is a Ph.D. student specializing in Latinx Literature and Politics. Originally from Queens, New York, he has called the Midwest home for almost a decade. Through boundless cynicism he keeps trying. Reach him at [email protected] or @ByOliverOrtega on Twitter.

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

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