A Short Reflection on Three Home Football Weekends

The Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team has an unbalanced schedule this year in terms of the dates of home and away games. By the end of September, the team will have played four of its first five games at home, leaving only one home game in each of October and November. After an idle weekend after the first week of classes at ND (typically known as “syllabus week” in which the workload is very light as courses get started) the next three Saturdays all featured a home football game (9/1, 9/8, 9/15). This means, of course, that after the first three full weeks of school, the campus community played host to 100,000+ visitors each weekend, and as anyone who’s studied, taught, or worked at ND knows, the whole atmosphere of a football weekend is radically different than any other weekend at ND. The full force of daylong activity on Saturday gathers strength on the preceding Friday and even Thursday, with the aftermath felt throughout Sunday.

I bring this up because I talked to two undergraduate students this weekend who both had the same response to the football team’s opening schedule, and neither response had anything to do with the performance of the team. Rather, their responses concerned what these three home football weekends have done to their lives as students. One of them is a first-year student who is really struggling to adjust to being away from home and the various little adaptations involved in college life; the other is a well-adjusted second-year student who is thriving in college. Both of them feel exhausted, behind on things, and disoriented.

Here by the third week of September, courses have really picked up in intensity. The first round of exams are commencing. The reading and problem-set loads have reached full capacity. Orientation is definitely over—the semester is in full swing. With three home football weekends at the start of the term what is also true has become even more pronounced: even for those students who opt not to go to the games, the very environment, especially on Saturdays, suggests that this is not a day for study or recuperation or rest. It is instead a day of heightened activity. On a weekly basis, this means that Sunday becomes crunch time for completing weekly assignments, studying for exams, and writing essays.

This is of course part of the culture at Notre Dame—the cost for all the extraordinary benefits that the football program affords the university and its community (and they are extraordinary, not only in financial terms but in communal terms also). But the sequence of three straight weekends at the very start of the semester has been, in my view and the view of the students I talked to yesterday, unfair and actually rather cruel to our students. We have not put them in a position to start strong this year and to set a foundation for success. Instead, they’re already behind and playing catch-up.

While the following is a larger issue than what I can substantially comment on here, the increasing prevalence of both diagnosed anxiety disorders and undiagnosed anxiety struggles among our young adults is not unrelated to scheduling matters such as this. Along with other colleges and universities, Notre Dame continues to increase its support of and resources for students burdened by mental health issues, including and especially those related to anxiety, and this is all for the good. But we seem to be unable or unwilling to consider the conditions we create for our students—both in terms of the campus environment with all that goes into it as well as the default expectations we set for students well before they ever matriculate—conditions that are if not the underlying causes of such ailments at least exacerbating factors. Creating a schedule for the campus community in which the most public of all its annual activities occur on three consecutive weekends to start the year and thus puts a strain on our students academic, social, physical, and emotional lives seems, at minimum, shortsighted.

Another issue that goes beyond what I can meaningfully treat here concerns what happens to Sundays when college football dominates campus life on Saturdays. A community that cannot observe Sunday well as a day of leisure, rest, and worship is a community that dies a little from within on a week-to-week basis. This is of course all the more important for a Catholic community.

An easy response to the concerns I am drumming up here is that the 2018 schedule is itself an anomaly. Look back at 2017 or ahead to 2019 and you’ll see that three consecutive home games to start the year (or four games at home out of the first five) isn’t the norm. That’s true: 2017 featured 2 at home, 2 away, and then another at home (all in September), while in 2019 the Irish’s September schedule goes away–bye–home–away–home. But look again at those schedules and you’ll see something else that is troubling: in both 2017 and 2019 Notre Dame hosts seven games at home rather than what has been the standard six in recent years. So each of those schedules starts slightly more humanely for our students but, in the end, takes yet one more weekend from them.

The point of my now-not-so-short-reflection is that cultivating a healthy, life-giving, and (yes) studious culture for our students must always be an intentional, coordinated, and comprehensive endeavor. Especially at a place like Notre Dame with such abundant gifts including everything that comes with the fame and popularity of the football program, the view of the whole must be operative in decisions and planning that bear as significant an impact as football scheduling. That is to say, in addition and maybe even in advance of what schedule best suits the needs and potential success of the football program (and it is far from clear that the 2018 schedule serves that end anyway), the welfare of the student body as a whole and the wider university community along with it should play a leading role.

In short, everything is a matter of institutional mission.

(I welcome your comments below.)