Do big-time sports undermine the mission of the university? Or do they contribute to that mission in a distinct way?
On April 16, in the Leighton Concert Hall at the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center, a group of panelists will address these and related questions in the first annual Panel Discussion Series.
Hosted by the Dean’s Fellows and the College of Arts & Letters (in which College the Fellows are housed), the Panel Discussion Series—which previously had been known colloquially as the “God Debates” due to their subject matter—will broach the increasingly controversial issue of whether and to what extent major, highly profitable collegiate sports are conducive to the life and nature of the university.
The Dean’s Fellows, founded in 2006, is a “select and diverse student group comprised of sophomores, juniors, and seniors dedicated to the liberal arts and to the intellectual enhancement of the campus community,” according to the university’s website. As of the beginning of the academic year, 33 sophomores, juniors and seniors comprised the Dean’s Fellows, who “partner with a variety of centers and institutions on campus in order to facilitate engagement amongst the academic, social, and cultural aspects of life at Notre Dame,” according to the Fellows web page.
In addition to receiving tickets to every event hosted at the Performing Arts Center, Fellows coordinate campus-wide events, such as the newly-named Panel Discussion Series, and serve on student collaboration committees for the university. Members of an executive committee, as well as an administrative president, lead the Fellows in their programming efforts.
For the April panel discussion, the Fellows have already secured the attendance of Murray Sperber—a professor emeritus at Indiana University (Bloomington) who wrote a popular book on the topic of major collegiate sports, Beer and Circus: How Big-Time College Sports Has Crippled Undergraduate Education—and Melinda Henneberger, an alumna who writes political pieces regularly for the Washington Post and who has penned a number of critical investigative articles concerning Notre Dame’s handling of football-related sexual assault cases.
The Fellows are also seeking to land Allan Page, a key member of the 1966 national championship football team who went on to become a hall-of-fame defensive tackle for the Minnesota Vikings, for the discussion. (Page is currently an associate justice on Minnesota’s Supreme Court.)
According to numerous Fellows, Notre Dame’s own athletic department was invited to send a representative to the panel discussion as its fourth member. The athletic department has declined invitations to do so.
When asked about why the athletic department declined participation in the panel, senior associate athletics director John Heisler explained that “after bringing the opportunity to others in the department for consideration, it was determined that for this sort of discussion—about athletics and academics at large and not about Notre Dame in particular—it was more appropriate for athletics to support the dialogue and encourage attendance than for us to be a direct participant.”
Assistant Dean for Undergraduate Studies Joe Stanfiel, one of the Fellows’ two faculty advisors since 2008, told the Rover that “this issue deserves to be debated because any activity that is irrelevant to the university’s educational mission and that takes up so much of the university’s resources should be subjected to scrutiny.”
Nikitha Taniparti, a senior economics and anthropology major who serves on the Fellows’ executive committee, commented that the topic of big-time sports is “important for Notre Dame because we’re a Catholic university.”
“We settled on the topic late in the spring of 2012,” she explained. Prior to that spring, “we tossed the idea aside. But then we met with [Notre Dame philosophy professor emeritus] Alasdair MacIntyre, who also encouraged the topic…he led us in the direction that we are pursuing today.”
“We thought it would be ideal to take on this issue for a variety of reasons,” Taniparti continued. “This is an issue being discussed at the national level as well…and one that can garner much enthusiasm and support across campus.”
Theodora Hannan, a senior history major who also serves on the Fellows’ executive committee, noted that “part of why we chose this topic has to do with its more real-world application of philosophy.”
“This is a conversation joining a theory (the idea of Notre Dame, as both Catholic and a premier university) with the practice of that theory (how Notre Dame deals with a fundamental part of its identity, its athletics program),” Hannan said. “Essentially, we’re asking if Notre Dame can be successfully dedicated to sports excellence, its mission to educate the body, mind and soul of its students (especially athletes) and its Catholic character, including all the moral teachings of the Church.”
According to Taniparti and Hannan, the Fellows collectively decided to shift the nature of their annual debates to the less dichotomous panel format.
“The more people with whom we talk, the more they have shown us that [this topic] is multi-faceted, and that it isn’t a blame game,” Taniparti offered. “We ourselves don’t have the answer to the question. There are obviously many perspectives…[so] we were excited to tackle the topic.”
Hannan added that the Fellows “wanted this to be a discussion with a variety of views articulated, rather than going for a yes/no answer.”
The Fellows are clear about their vision for their programming: to expand the intellectual breadth of their peers and to engage every member of campus in discussion of important topics relevant to the life of the university.
Hannan is hoping that the panelists will educe the nuances of such a loaded topic.
“None of us are advocating [that] Notre Dame drop all its athletics programs,” she said. “We want to draw out the complexities of the issue.”
“We can’t talk about this issue just amongst our friends in the dorm, or at a small table at the dining hall,” Taniparti emphasized. “Everyone should know where their peers stand, if they hope to change anything or see things work differently.”
Stanfiel summarized his view on the panel discussion’s importance thus: “[Big-time sports] may very well be the wisest investment Notre Dame could make,” he said. “But we won’t know unless we ask some questions.”
Michael Bradley is a senior studying philosophy and theology who lives in Dillon Hall. As an ex-member of Notre Dame’s track & field team, he is casting his bid for the fourth panel position. Contact him at email@example.com.