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What Did Paul Hornung Say?
In Dissent, Number One Hundred and Sixty
by Brian S. Wise
02 April 2004

When Paul Hornung said Notre Dame needs “the black athlete” to win, he was right; he’s no racist for saying so, just unintelligent in the way he said it.

For thoughtful people, the Paul Hornung story brings to mind a few questions, one being the obvious consideration – whether Hornung is a racist for saying the University of Notre Dame’s academic standards should be lowered to allow “more black athletes” into the program – with the other being not-so-obvious, namely: Why in the hell would any large, relevant division 1A college football program even look at the white athlete if it wants to win national championships? Of course, any racial question brings the natural baggage, those people who are much too busy fitting their agendas into a tiny box to take the time to step back and wonder whether – shocking! – and part of the offending comment may have been true.

To begin, it’s important to know what Hornung actually said. During an appearance on Detroit’s AM-1270 Tuesday, he was asked why it seemed as though there were no dynasties left in college football; did limited scholarships have something to do with it? “[Notre Dame] is playing eight bowl teams next year [Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue just to start the season] … and it’s always year in and year out … one of the toughest schedules. You can’t play a schedule like that unless you have the black athlete today. You just can’t do it, and it’s very, very tough, still, to get into Notre Dame. They [he means Notre Dame and its alumni] just don’t understand it, yet they want to win.”

Another consideration: Why would a team hoping to increase its portfolio stack the deck against itself like that, when national championship and other powerhouse teams have for years scheduled themselves against teams like Crippled Secretaries University to gain their footholds? In Notre Dame’s case it’s because it has a national broadcast contract with NBC for all its home games (even its away games are widely broadcast on other networks); the theory (not an illogical one) is that no one will tune in to see Notre Dame if, eight weeks out of eleven, it lines up opposite Shellshocked Veterans University. But on the other hand, in putting inferior players on the field against athletically superior teams, even its core base is losing interest; Notre Dame’s television ratings are on par with the National Hockey League, no compliment.

One must acknowledge that Notre Dame is a unique brand. Its alumni and rabid fans can literally be found in every corner of the country, and in legion; people are attracted to the tradition, to what “Notre Dame” has come to represent from Knute Rockne on down. Other programs have fans everywhere, but anyone who has ever spent a game day at Notre Dame can see the true reach of the team. License plates from every one of the contiguous forty-eight States can be found there. Theirs is simply a dedication that the vast majority of college football teams cannot claim exists around their programs in their towns.

But with that has developed an exaggerated sense of entitlement, especially among alumni, who believe their dedication (and donation checks) enable them a far greater voice than logic would otherwise suggest. On the one hand they want the best for a team they love, on the other hand too many of them are unwilling to accept that in order to do so, some intellectual sacrifices must be made. If the University wants to win with academic all Americans, then they have undertaken a bold modern stance; but it had better schedule itself as a team who wants to win ten games a year instead of a team that is just too good to modernize.

Having been born and raised in South Bend has allowed me the chance to accumulate a few sources inside Notre Dame’s football program over the years; one was unavailable for this column, another told me that the things people should know are generally those they aren’t supposed to know at all. For example, that academic exceptions have been made when it mattered most, especially under Lou Holtz between 1986 and 1990. Todd Lyght (cornerback), Tony Rice (quarterback), Raghib Ismail (wide receiver), Bryant Young (defensive lineman) and Jerome Bettis (running back) are just five examples of very good players admitted with less than stellar academic backgrounds. All but Rice played in the NFL, they all managed to graduate. The point is that if the University truly had standards set in stone – as it suggested in a press release Wednesday – none of those players, and in that I mean none of them, would have ever been admitted.

Said my source, “If Tony Rice’s transcript and SAT scores were brought into the admissions office today, they would be set on fire.”

The implication was stark: These are standards strictly adhered to these days but not always, and it’s because of those Notre Dame is not winning. What Paul Hornung was trying to say, but failed at so miserably, was that in order for Notre Dame to win national championships, it’s going to have to make academic exceptions for recruits of high character if not necessarily of the highest grades. Notre Dame is always in the top five of American Universities graduating its football players, and no one is saying it should become Tennessee – which doesn’t graduate even thirty percent of its players – but if a program is intent on winning, occasional and specific exceptions must be made.

Concluded my source, “Notre Dame needs three things to happen in order to reach the top of college football again. They must have a president and an administration who wants to win big time instead of just cashing in on its players. If the tenure of Father Monk Malloy is extended next summer, or if anyone of his ilk is brought in, it is over for that program for the next fifteen years. Second, they must hire a larger-than-life head coach; Tyrone Willingham has proven not to be a top flight coach because he’s been blown out six of his last fourteen games and has gone five and nine. If they had hired John Gruden [currently of the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and who attended Clay High School in South Bend], Bob Stoops [of Oklahoma] or someone on that level, the program would be back in the top five within three years. Third, they must allow that coach to do what Lou Holtz did and grab academic exceptions when needed. Until they do these things, they will be mediocre at best.”

But there is still the other racial consideration, the idea that black athletes are more relevant to success than white athletes. There isn’t one stable intellect in or out of the America sporting community (this is from middle school through the professional ranks) who doesn’t know the white athlete is finished, more irrelevant than ever before. Years ago Sports Illustrated published an article called “Whatever Happened to the White Athlete?” that drew some ire while missing the greater overall point: It doesn’t matter what happened to the white athlete when it comes to football and basketball because they’re irrelevant to the process, inferior.

Media has gone out of its way to break down the percentages of white and black football players at Notre Dame (ESPN.com noted, “Of the 68 scholarship players on Notre Dame’s spring roster, 35 are black and 33 are white. Of the incoming freshmen, 12 are black and five are white. That would make Notre Dame’s roster next season 55 percent black if no one leaves”) without acknowledging, even in passing, the elephant in the room. You don’t need white kids to win at football and basketball, and you wouldn’t need them in baseball and hockey if more black kids would play those sports. When Paul Hornung said Notre Dame needs “the black athlete” to win, he was right; he’s no racist for saying so, just unintelligent in the way he said it.

Brian Wise is the lead columnist for Intellectual Conservative.

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