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Monday, November 1, 2010
Notre Dame: After the fall

By Jeff MacGregor

Welcome to a world without consequence.

Welcome to a world in which cause and effect are suspended and in which the laws of physics no longer apply.

Notre Dame Helmet
Notre Dame honored Declan Sullivan's memory with his initials while the team played on.

Welcome to the fairy-tale world of big-time, big-money sports, where the distance between fantasy and reality is the width of the hashmark on a football field, and where the illusion of simplicity and control is no more than a handsbreadth from the howling universal darkness.

Welcome to Parallel America, where the difference between life and death is the thickness of a dollar bill.

Let's all take this election week as an occasion to celebrate our obsessions and delusions. To map our national madness and to make plain our insanity. To point out our perfect hypocrisy and remind one another that what we say and what we think and what we do might mean the very opposite of what we do and what we think and what we say.

Note please the bright line of bad faith and bad reasoning, of absent ethics and amorality, running from Notre Dame football to Brett Favre's not-so-smart phone to Michael Vick's heavenly kennels to Rick Pitino's big night out to Pete Carroll's hasty exit to the campaigns of Carl Paladino or Harry Reid or Sharron Angle for further examples (1 through 1,000,000 inclusive) of our ongoing confusion between what's real and what's written in the sales brochure or the campaign mailing.

Poor Declan Sullivan is dead because he fell into the gap between the real world and the fairy tale of college football. He was killed because big-time, big-money football takes no account of the weather and makes no measure of common sense. Because big-time, big-money college football exists outside the forces of nature or reason. Because nothing must impede its progress or its profitability.

Brett Favre
One explanation for Brett Favre's alleged misbehavior: He didn't grow up in the real world.

Poor Declan Sullivan is dead because big-time, big-money college football builds men and character and endowments, so it must never be interrupted.

But don't let that signage in the locker room fool you. Those hackneyed bromides about teamwork and taking responsibility are window dressing, a little sloganeering for the rare parent who might ask about the true costs of it all.

Like the stories of Rudy or Knute -- or the principle of in loco parentis -- it's just more mythological sugar to pour on the rubes when they start to ask awkward questions.

Because not only do big-time, big-money sports no longer seem to build character but they seem to actively undermine it, spectacularly so, across entire institutions.

That's why I'm not shocked that no one at Notre Dame has been fired. Firing creates more legal liability rather than less, and every bureaucracy from the beginning of time has existed only to fight for its own survival.

But I'm a little surprised that, as part of a high-profile global franchise claiming 2,000 years of moral authority, no one under the Golden Dome thus far has offered to resign.

Plaxico Burress
Plaxico Burress was living the high life of a professional football player when his fall came.

Those offers should have come Thursday morning from Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick, Notre Dame provost Thomas G. Burish and Notre Dame president Father John I. Jenkins.

Those resignations would have made great sense if any of the relevant parties took seriously the very principles of community and sacrifice and accountability they insist that big-time, big-money football teaches.

Raising again the question: If this is the kind of character we build with our character-building programs, why bother?

Brett Favre does as Brett Favre pleases because to him the world is as it was when he was in junior high school -- a two-dimensional rectangle bounded neatly on all four sides by chalk lines and pretty girls. That's what we taught him to expect, and he delivers on that expectation year in and year out. In the same way that Plaxico Burress takes a gun into a nightclub because he thinks his life is a movie, or that Christine O'Donnell thinks she can misstate her way into a Senate seat, consequences fall only in that moment when fantasy somehow collides with reality.

Thus does the gulf widen between who we are and who we say we are, between what we do and what we imagine ourselves doing.

We will measure and record this distance yet again on Election Day.

What is most alarming, I suppose, to those of us who can still feel anything is that these institutions have come to mean the very opposite of what they say they mean. Notre Dame football doesn't build character; it negates character. Politics doesn't build bridges; it burns them. Government isn't a way to help your neighbors; it's just another way to punish them.

Brian Kelly
If he practiced what he and Notre Dame preach, shouldn't Brian Kelly have offered to resign?

Nineteen kinds of irony now boomerang back on us all until no one anywhere is sure what's real and what's a punch line. And the day we can no longer tell the difference is the day the bill for our selfishness at last comes due.

Vita, Dulcedo, Spes.

Life, sweetness, hope.

That's the motto of the University of Notre Dame.

And "A coach's greatest asset is his sense of responsibility -- the reliance placed on him by his players" is a quote you'll find floating around the Internet, attributed to Knute Rockne. There are far too many citations for it to have been posted only in the past few days as a prank or as a mordant commentary. Or punch line.

Sadly -- ironically -- there is no height, no altitude, no vantage point from which Brian Kelly and Notre Dame will ever determine exactly how far they've fallen.

Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for and ESPN The Magazine. You can e-mail him at, or follow his feed @MacGregorESPN.