Then there is a human sporting instinct to root for the underdog. Despite this year’s early polls, Notre Dame would be the anti-underdog, the villainous overdog. While major conferences now have their own networks, ND is the only school to have its own joint venture with a national TV network. NBC televises every ND home game. It’s a relationship that has existed in one form or another for a quarter century, and will continue at least through 2015. While most schools are regional in fan-base, ND is international. While most football teams therefore recruit regionally, ND has a recruiting base without borders. And what galls many, ND is the only independent school that is a founding member of the BCS, the unincorporated association that determines who will perform in the BCS bowl games. Most disturbing is the undeniable fact that ND has remained part of that elite circle of influencers though it was mediocre on the field during the bulk of the BCS existence. No one likes unearned privileges except those who receive them.
And then for many it is easier to like the humble and dislike the snob. Until this year, ND chose to remain independent of other conferences, though wooed on several occasions by the Big Ten. Some would say it was because ND considered itself closer to heaven and Touchdown Jesus should not be polluted by the unsaintly. And even with ND’s future joining of the Atlantic Coast Conference, where other sports are all in, football is not to be fully shared. That could be considered code for, “Our other sports can share sweat with you, but our football is more special than yours.”
If I was on the ND defense team, I would argue, “If all that negativity was true we would not have such a large fan base, exclusive TV contracts and viewership, sold out stadiums, and multi-million dollar merchandizing of all-things-Irish.”
I would also remind the detractors that ND is a historic model of sporting excellence. ND has won 13 national championships, second only to Alabama among the top-level schools since 1900. Between 1988 and 1993 it won 88% of its games. No school has as many players winning the Heisman trophy (7) and no school has had as many consensus All-Americans (96). And it has have done it while maintaining high academic standards without major scandal. Those who rebel are lesser fans or just plain jealous or infected with some other malady in need of an exorcism.
Sometimes we try to understand humans without making a value judgment of whether they are right or wrong. One factor involves the role of media. If people view a school’s media coverage as over the top reverence, they start to resent the coverage and the team. They fail to distinguish between the authors of the hype and the team the media gushes over without asking for it. Exhibit A is Duke basketball push back. Regarding ND football, the gushing has already started. The day after the Southern Cal game that cemented the Irish in the BCS game, ESPN News already commenced its reverence-speak. They preferred the terms of endearment “relevance” to reverence. The script included, “Are they back? Echoes fade…but relevance remains. And right now… the age [for the Irish] is golden all over again.”
Even if ND has an oversupply of detractors, are the Irish they good for the game? Are they good for college sports in general? Are they one of America’s best examples of winning “the right way?” I suspect in the private mental voting booth of even the haters, the answer is “Yes”. But some in fandom root harder against their villain than for their angel. Would Sothern Cal, Michigan, Michigan State or Purdue boo as passionately against or cherish a victory over ND as much if ND had the same stature as some directional school – say Northwest Utah? And there is an application to the age-old axiom “There’s a thin line between love and hate” – especially when you love to hate ‘em.