Jonathan Chait: The Myth of The Fighting Irish

Roundup: Talking About History

You have probably heard the story about how a former Notre Dame football player, George Gipp, lay dying in bed and asked his coach, Knute Rockne, to tell the players to "win one for the Gipper." Later on, when his team is trailing at halftime, Rockne goes on to relay this moment to his players, who, in a burst of inspiration, go on to win the game. It is one of the most iconic episodes in the history of American sport.

It's also a fabrication.

Rockne never heard Gipp's dying words, and he never mentioned him in a halftime speech. (And Gipp, far from the heroic figure Ronald Reagan portrayed him as in the 1940 film Knute Rockne All-American, was a card shark and pool hustler.)

Notre Dame football occupies a central place in the culture of American sport. Newspapers in the Midwest generally have dedicated beat writers for the hometown teams and one other program: Notre Dame. The 117 Division 1-A football teams that are not Notre Dame share time slots on ABC, CBS and ESPN. Notre Dame has its own network, NBC, whose college football coverage is limited solely to Notre Dame games, which it covers with all the journalistic tenacity of a church newsletter.

There is no other team in any sport--except perhaps the New York Yankees--that is so uniquely prominent that it is synonymous with the sport itself. The prominence of the Yankees makes sense; the team has won more games and more pennants than any other in baseball. But Notre Dame does not have the most wins nor the highest winning percentage of any college football program. So why does Notre Dame football hold such a prominent place in our culture? The answer lies in the power of myth.

Myth is deeply embedded in Notre Dame football, the way it is in no other sports team. Not only is the "win one for the Gipper" story a fabrication, so too is Rockne's image. Murray Sperber, who wrote a book on the coach, has reported that the real Rockne was far from the "symbol of all possible virtues" that was his public image. Rockne published a newspaper column giving advice to college football gamblers and was obsessed with making money. His life ended, somewhat fittingly, in a plane crash on the way to sign a lucrative Hollywood deal. "He died, in a sense, chasing the dollar," Sperber noted last month in the South Bend Tribune.

The pattern has recurred through modern times. Remember the film Rudy, the heartwarming tale of a luckless kid who got into Notre Dame, joined the team, and recorded a sack? The central plot tension--when Rudy's teammates turn in their jerseys to protest his exclusion from the team--never happened. Moreover, the person on whom the film is based went on to be a career failure until he persuaded Hollywood to buy his story. He now has a lucrative career recounting his own story. How perfectly fitting for Notre Dame: His one demonstrable skill is self-promotion....

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