On a November day not quite one hundred autumns ago, a man disembarked from a train in Chicago and went on a multi-day bender. His name was George Gipp, and he played football for Notre Dame, and a few weeks after he returned to campus, he was dead.
If you remember George Gipp at all, you most likely recall him as a fictional character, an angelic presence played in the film Knute Rockne, All-American by a young actor named Ronald Wilson Reagan. The movie dispatched with Gipp’s more seemly preoccupations with gambling and booze; the movie turned the Gipper into a myth, the subject of the most famous motivational speech in college football history, a gauzy and dubious tale that Reagan seized on and made his own.
I bring this up because fifth-ranked Notre Dame plays second-ranked Florida State on Saturday, in one of the most hyped games of the college football season to date. But I also bring up the true story of the Gipper because Notre Dame-Florida State is teetering perilously close to being billed as yet another matchup between the righteous and the sinful. Which, given the perilously gray ethical realm that college football perpetually resides in, is never a good idea.
The primary driver behind this narrative, of course, is Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston, who has gotten himself into trouble for various boneheaded mistakes and for one potentially very serious mistake involving the alleged sexual assault of a female student. It’s obviously silly to conflate the latest allegations against Winston – potentially signing his own name for compensation – with the deadly serious crime that Winston may or may not have committed. But nobody ever accused either college football fans or the media that covered them of doing subtlety particularly well.
And so the simple thing to do is to presume that the Irish are the good guys here. The simple thing to do is to point out Notre Dame’s 94 percent graduation rate (and Florida State’s comparably deplorable numbers), and to link to the recent New York Times story accusing FSU of shielding its players from the police, and to gloss over the fact that every campus in America has a sexual assault problem that needs to be addressed, including Notre Dame.
It’s easy to declare that some colleges are doing this whole success-with-honor thing better than others, but it’s also worth mentioning that nothing is ever that simple, and that Notre Dame has its own disciplinary issues, and that Florida State has produced a Rhodes Scholar.
We bought into these facile narratives in years past because television was still an evolving medium that amplified storylines into myth. I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating this week: For a long time, my favorite football game of all-time was the 1987 Fiesta Bowl between Penn State and Miami, largely because I was under the impression it stood for something that was never entirely real.
In the fall of ’86, Penn State and Miami both went undefeated during the regular season; Miami, under a coach named Jimmy Johnson, was already viewed by the national media as a band of rogues and misfits, and Penn State, under a coach named Joe Paterno, was seen a paragon of virtue and honor. Good versus Evil. But the truth is always far more complicated than we would like it to be: Decades later, we learned that the defensive coordinator who helped execute a brilliant defensive strategy in Penn State’s 14-10 victory was, in fact, a serial sexual abuser of children.
A year after that contest, Notre Dame trafficked on the Catholics versus Convicts storyline when defeating Miami 31-30 on the way to a national championship. And yet the case can be made that the Hurricanes were actually the good guys – their flamboyant questioning of the status quo served as the nascent stirrings of a revolution that will most likely lead to major changes in the way college football players are compensated.
I understand the impulse here. We want college football to feel like something mythical because that’s where its roots lie. At Notre Dame, Knute Rockne trafficked on a narrative that was largely embellished, but these myths – and tales like the Gipper’s – were what built Notre Dame into a football powerhouse in the first place.
In April of 1920, just months before Gipp’s death, Rockne helped get his star player reinstated at the school, despite his carousing. “Word spread quickly that Notre Dame was becoming nothing more than a football factory,” author Ray Robinson wrote, in his book Rockne of Notre Dame. “These stories insisted that Rockne was determined to win at any cost.”
So go ahead and cheer, cheer for old Notre Dame, if you feel like you must. But for those of us who adore college football despite (and perhaps because of) its obvious flaws – for those of us who see it as a reflection of this country’s ongoing arguments and glaring imperfections – part of the sport’s perverse appeal is recognizing that everyone, at some level, is complicit.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb