Notre Dame stirs passion in college football fans -- you either love 'em or hate 'em. But the team's new helmet and uniform should, for once, bring us all together in revulsion and alarm.
It's tough to describe the new team duds, which will be worn just once this season. But suffice it to say they are un-Notre Dame like -- in the extreme. They beg for attention, and Notre Dame football has never done that.
The Fighting Irish do not showboat. They do not compromise academic standards to get the best high school prospects. And they don't wear uniforms that look like they were designed by Picasso instead of Adidas -- or a marketing group rolling out a new clothing line, which is really what this amounts to.
Sure, the team is a marketing behemoth. But it became that by being quintessentially itself -- and by winning. Notre Dame, as the saying goes, has always practiced the principles of attraction rather than of promotion. It became America's college football team precisely because it resisted cheap urges like this one, just as it resisted the wince-evoking player endzone dances that befell so many teams in the '90s, and the flashy stadium gimmicks that have turned professional sports arenas into grating discotheques of light and noise. Notre Dame has one of the greatest fan bases in America because people want to feel part of its deep traditions, not because a new shiny object has lured them into a stadium.
Go to a Fighting Irish football game in South Bend -- or a home University of Michigan or U.S. Naval Academy game for that matter -- and what you will see is genuine team spirit from a bygone era: big, bold marching bands, cheerleaders who cry when their team loses, sportsmanship on the field and student-athletes who play their hearts out every autumn Saturday.
What you will not see -- or very little of -- is the crassness you find in other college and all professional stadiums.
I grew up a Notre Dame fanatic. My great-grandfather taught there; my father is Class of '47. My grandmother was raised in a house on the campus called The Lilacs, which stands as a National Historic Landmark today. My brother Peter, class of '94, was a manager on the team. He walked Notre Dame Stadium's sidelines during some heady seasons. I didn't apply to Notre Dame because I knew I couldn't get in, or live up to the school's standards as a wildish 18-year-old.
Those standards are firm.
I remember as a child feeling stinging injustice in learning that a star player would be ineligible to play in a big game because he broke curfew, snuck a girl into his dorm room or didn't make good enough grades. That punishment wouldn't have happened to a player on the opposing team. But those were Notre Dame's standards. It may have looked inflexible at times to an outside world falling in love with moral relativism, but as the behavior among players at other schools unraveled, Notre Dame's standards made its fans feel special.
It made its players special, too. In 2011, 100 percent of the team's African-American players, and 99 percent of players overall, received a four-year degree. No other college in America had a 100 percent graduation rate among black players. Florida State -- a fine football program no doubt -- graduated 44 percent of its African-American players in 2011 by comparison, and just 64 percent of its players overall.
Notre Dame's jarring new uniform, which will be unveiled in October at Soldier Field in Chicago when the Irish play the University of Miami in the newly invented "Shamrock Series", probably won't lower that graduation rate. Nor will it keep players from attending mass as a team before every game, or raising their helmets to the student section while singing the school's alma mater at the close of each game.
But it will make its fans feel just a little bit less special. Because rather than saying "We are ND," this jumbled mess of fabric will be saying "We capitulate."
That's not acceptable. Not for Notre Dame, or other institutions of its calibre.