The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Notre Dame’s president lacked self-control. Its student body is merely following his example.

Fans storm the field after Notre Dame defeated top-ranked Clemson, 47-40, in double overtime Saturday night in South Bend, Ind. (Matt Cashore/AP)

Notre Dame let 11,000 students into a football game — and now is reprimanding them for acting like students at a football game. How very Fighting Irish, what a classic mixture of high superiority and low, of guilty expediency, of painted-on purity. Other football schools are having their problems with coronavirus outbreaks, lots of them, but Notre Dame appears to be the only one taking the gate receipts and then blaming spectators for the same uncontrolled passions of their unmasked leaders, while making pale after-the-fact confessions and gestures at discipline.

Coach Brian Kelly was pretty sure there could be a flood-the-field event Saturday against No. 1 Clemson and that it wouldn’t be good in the midst of a global pandemic and a spike on campus. So he ran. “I beat ‘em all to the tunnel,” he joked after his team upset the Tigers, 47-40, in double overtime.

Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick also seems to have had some idea that crowd control could be an issue, just as he knew there have been almost 1,400 cases of the coronavirus on campus and a positivity rate of 5 percent, yet he encouraged thousands to congregate anyway. This was a preventable event, yet no one prevented it. But why should they, given that university president Rev. John I. Jenkins showed no more command of himself in the White House Rose Garden than a whooping, field-rampaging fan?

Notre Dame president admonishes students for virus violation he also committed

Jenkins is probably just now understanding the extent to which he undermined himself and his authority with his glad-handing conduct at the White House reception for Amy Coney Barrett, the ex-Notre Dame Law School faculty member who joined the Supreme Court. Jenkins now finds himself in the position of trying to enforce “zero tolerance” and “severe sanctions” for similar superspreader events amid an undefeated football season. Good luck with that. There is nothing more maddening and ineffectual than a leader who flouts his or her own rules while holding others to them. As the great Irish commentator Fintan O’Toole has written, that carries “an unpardonable snigger of elite condescension.”

Jenkins has built a reputation as a thoughtful president and one with backbone, but he mistakes the nature of authority if he thinks he can follow up his apology for his own conduct with the scold he issued to students Sunday night and retain their good will. To paraphrase an old remark by Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, anyone who thinks leadership is all about enforcing rules isn’t a leader; he’s a bureaucrat.

The single greatest pitfall in failed leadership is lack of consistency. As any coach knows, to display a lack of personal discipline while demanding it from others will utterly erode your authority. If sometimes you’re true to your word, and sometimes not, confidence in you will fail. Your own discipline is the tent-pole architecture of your organization, and without it the structure will collapse, for lack of credibility. If you are weak in a crucial moment, then you’ll weaken everything around you.

Notre Dame president test positive for coronavirus after attending White House ceremony

There is someone on the Notre Dame campus who can explain that principle better than anyone: Muffet McGraw. The recently retired women’s basketball coach who won two NCAA championships has been teaching a leadership course at Notre Dame’s business school. In a phone conversation a few weeks ago, McGraw talked about the role of personal responsibility and told a story on herself. She had come home from practice venting about what her players hadn’t done that day to her husband, Matt, a business consultant and former psychology major. One evening Matt led her over to a mirror and turned her to face it. “Maybe there’s the problem,” he said.

McGraw’s teams were famous for their discipline: Their cuts, their spacing were impeccable, because she would mark the floor with an “X” and say: “I want you here. I don’t want you three inches to the right or the left. And when you’re running, you’re going to touch the line. You’re not going to just be in the area.”

But it was one thing to mark the floor, and it was another thing to endure the tedium of actually coaching those things with personal discipline, to insist on them at the end of a practice when she longed to blow the whistle and go home. “The biggest issue with coaching was, do you want to do it until you get it right?” she says. “Or do you get to a point of diminishing returns where you go, ‘You know, it’s not going to happen today, so let’s move on’? Do you lower your goals and, instead of five in a row, do you try to get three in a row? And I think there were days when we just were like, ‘No, we stay till we get it right.’ Because what are you teaching them? On the other end of this? If you say, ‘This is the goal’ and then you don’t reach it and you move on, what are you teaching them about your discipline?”

Obviously, the wearying discipline required by the coronavirus lapsed among Notre Dame’s higher leadership. Carlos del Rio, a medical adviser to the NCAA and professor of medicine and global health at Emory University, says control of the virus on football campuses is still achievable with masks, testing and tracing, but “the kind of crazy event they had the other night” is worrying. There are ways, he says, to be sure the college football season is “not a disaster.” But the main factor in getting a grip on this thing? “If I could put it in one word,” he says, “it’s to be responsible.”

Notre Dame has always sought to position itself as a unique and visible leader of college football, a maker of manners. Notre Dame’s president had a powerful opportunity to send a national message about this pandemic and personal responsibility. Instead he sent the opposite. No wonder everyone ignored his rules.