He revered Notre Dame for its part in democratizing college football, in giving chances to kids for whom college might otherwise have been out of reach. The team’s golden helmets were emblems to him of the shimmering American ideals of grit and social mobility. In the ’60s, the presence on the Notre Dame squad of African American players such as the great defensive end Alan Page evoked for Rabbi Elsant the benefits of the racial progress absent at the time in the segregated Southeastern Conference, where all-white teams such as the University of Alabama’s were commonly regarded as inferior imitations of the integrated northern powerhouses.
He appreciated, too, the preeminence of a religious university. To Rabbi Elsant, Notre Dame victories served as welcome blows on behalf of all faiths. Until the day might arrive when Yeshiva University (eventually his son’s destination) fielded a notable squad, the Fighting Irish would be his team.
The rabbi liked that I had the same last name as legendary former Notre Dame coach Frank Leahy. That coincidence made it all the more confounding to him that I regularly rooted against the Irish, especially when they faced my favorite team, the University of Southern California Trojans.
“How can you root against Notre Dame?” he groaned. “You’re Irish. They’re the Irish. They’re the Catholic team. What’s the problem?”
The question opened the door to my discomfort with Notre Dame. Part of it was coming of age in the late ’60s and early ’70s. It wasn’t an era crazy about rules or orthodoxy, and many of my Catholic friends and I chafed against the expectation that we would cheer for Notre Dame out of slavish loyalty to our families’ religious backgrounds. Catholic schools, catechism classes, no meat on Friday, Saturday morning detentions: We’d done our duty. Our football loyalties belonged to us.
But our coolness toward Notre Dame also reflected fissures within the Catholic Church, cracks widening to this day over birth control, abortion rights and the broader matter of whether any dissent — particularly tough questions of the Vatican — will be tolerated by the Catholic hierarchy.
And to this day, Notre Dame remains a political and social battleground for American Catholics. The university’s invitation for President Obama to deliver the 2009 commencement address became a national controversy, with conservative Catholics opposing the president’s positions on abortion rights and stem-cell research. And last year, the university filed suit against the federal government, seeking to overturn a requirement in Obama’s health-care law that employers offer insurance plans including contraception coverage — a move that more politically moderate church members resented, concerned that Notre Dame would seek to deprive women, Catholic or not, of such coverage.