Here are just a few examples of an oxymoron (which, as I was taught in high school, is a phrase formed of seemingly contradictory words): “mild-mannered reporter,” “airline food,” “humble opinion” and “Internet privacy.”
Too often in our high-pressured collegiate athletics, the term “student-athlete” has constituted an oxymoron. But that, quite frankly, is not the case with the University of Notre Dame’s football team, currently undefeated and ranked No. 1 in coaches’ and sportswriters’ polls and that will play the University of Alabama on Monday in what amounts to a national championship game. Why? Because Notre Dame football players — at 97 percent — have the highest graduation rate of any school in the nation playing at the most competitive level.
That means Notre Dame’s graduation rate is higher than the rates of students who play football for great colleges such as Stanford or Duke or Northwestern or Michigan or the Naval Academy or West Point. And, yes, for Alabama and California, too.
Thank you, Dear Reader, for tolerating my obvious lack of objectivity in these matters. Shortly after the cooling of our planet, in one of life’s great unearned blessings, I was able to attend for four years and to graduate from Notre Dame. I cherish my alma mater and acknowledge, reluctantly of course, that like all human institutions, Notre Dame is not perfect. But I am genuinely proud that the Notre Dame team is the first ever in American sports history to be No. 1 in both graduation rates and the national polls.
To its credit, Notre Dame does not isolate students who play football in a separate athletic dormitory, as so many schools do. Athletes live in dormitories with and take the same classes alongside students who are non-athletes.
This year’s team has two Academic All-Americans: center Mike Golic Jr. — who, having earned his undergraduate degree in film, television and theater (with a 3.428 GPA), is taking graduate courses — and linebacker Manti Te’o, the nation’s outstanding defensive player, who is a devout Mormon of Samoan roots from Hawaii and, with a 3.324 GPA, will graduate from the College of Arts and Letters with a degree in design.
The Rev. John I. Jenkins of the Holy Cross fathers, Notre Dame’s president, was asked by the Chronicle of Higher Education, “If you had your choice, what would you pick — a national title without a perfect graduation rate or no national title and a 100 percent graduation rate?”
Jenkins gave the answer most college presidents probably would have offered, but knowing the man, I am confident he meant it: “Well, that’s an easy one. It’s got to be the second. What gets me out of bed — what motivates us — is being a place where we can do both of those things. If you don’t have the satisfaction that you’re helping kids live a full life, it just wouldn’t be worth it. No number of championships would be worth it.”
The interview, which was conducted before the final regular season game, concluded by asking Jenkins for his prediction of the final score. His answer: “You know, this may be anathema to our coach, but whether we win or lose, it will be a great season, and each one of these kids will get a degree. And that’s something to celebrate.”
— Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.