“Touchdown Jesus:” At Notre Dame, Anti-Choicers Use Abortion As a Political Football. Literally

Amanda Marcotte

What do you get when you combine a pro-choice public figure with a Catholic University, hyper-masculinity and anti- intellectualism? Prime material for the anti-choice movement.

The University of Notre Dame has a long history of
worshipping the sport of football, complete with jokes about their "Touchdown
  As the university
that still can claim the most famous football coach in college football history, Notre Dame (ND)
still takes the sport very seriously decades after the fact.  They’re the only college football team
with its own television contract, to have its home games televised exclusively
by NBC.  The only problem with all
of this is that the Fighting Irish haven’t really been that great a team in a
long time.  And that’s why it was
such a wise decision for them to hire Cincinnati football coach Brian Kelly,
who turned his unremarkable team into a formidable power, and is believed, with
good reason, to be able to do even more with the recruiting abilities of Notre

This new hire is a big deal in college sports.  No wonder the anti-choicers decided
they had to have a part of it; Touchdown Jesus forbids that anything important
happen that’s not "All About Them." 
Hijacking health care reform isn’t enough, it turns out.  Now the Fetus People have to take on
college football.

The hook is that Notre Dame is a Catholic university and
Kelly is pro-choice.  Apparently,
this is suddenly a contradiction, though the sports world has mainly expressed confusion
over why this is an issue.
Hard to blame sports writers who ask the obvious question, which is,
“What does abortion have to do with football?”

To ask the question is to miss the point, as anyone who has
dealt with the Fetus People can attest. 
They haven’t met many issues they can’t make about abortion.  It’s an all-purpose stand-in for
everything that right wing reactionaries wish to attack—witness, for
instance, Chuck Norris implying that giving people more access to general
health care is the same thing as aborting
the Baby Jesus.
  If mammograms
and blood pressure medication are the same thing as abortion, then surely
hiring a pro-choice football coach is abortion.

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From an outsider’s perspective, the whole thing is
silly.  But for the sex panickers,
all the necessary ingredients are there in full force: College kids who are
surely Doing It, Catholicism (and the right wing’s naked desire to own it
outright), masculinity displays, and the hated pointy-headed intellectualism of
universities.  It doesn’t have to
make sense.  The point is that
college football is a powder keg of buttons that right-wingers like to push,
and they’re going to use abortion to push them.  This isn’t even the first time that this powder keg has
attracted anti-choice nuts.  Saint
Louis basketball coach Rick Majerus suggested that he supports abortion rights
in public, and publicity-hungry
reactionary archbishop Raymond Burke used this as an opportunity to lash out.
  When abortion is everything, then that
means it’s the perfect tool for power-hungry reactionaries to use when trying to
change elections
, stifle freedom of speech, or maximize sadistic
authoritarianism over every aspect of your flock’s life.

Let’s take a look at the ingredients of this sex panic that
poor Brian Kelly has set off by wanting to coach some football.  First of all, anti-choicers love to
have this sort of thing happen on campus, in part because they want to catch
them while they’re young and pliable, but mostly because they can exploit
campus tensions over sexuality. 
There’s always a handful of kids that resent the great campus sex
experiment who give anti-choicers an in on campus.  The Campus Anti-Sex League that was tapped to protest Obama
is available and waiting for the next round of lashing out at their more
sexually adventurous peers.

The Catholicism angle isn’t hard to figure out. Catholics
have traditionally been Democrats, and conservatives see abortion as an issue
where they can get massive and permanent electoral switches.  And when reticent and largely
pro-choice Catholics don’t get on board with the program, the attempts to
persuade them to consider abortion their number one issue turn to
force—hanging the loss of communion or, in Kelly’s case, the loss of jobs
over their heads if they don’t comply.

The masculinity issue is an interesting one.  Since football is considered an
uber-masculine past time, it’s not hard to figure out why anti-choicers would
think it’s the perfect home for the misogyny underlying their movement.  When real life turns out to be more
complicated—and when prominent figures demonstrate they can love football
without hating women—the potential for a right wing backlash is great.

And of course, you have anti-intellectualism, which is
nearly as important to the anti-choice movement as misogyny.  Catholic universities such as Notre
Dame have a long tradition of respecting and encouraging genuine intellectual
involvement in the world, which requires open-mindedness and often leads to
tolerance.  You know, like any
other university.  And the right
has a long-standing grudge match with the intellectual environment at
universities.  How better to attack
this hated enemy than to use religion to bully a major university to give up on
its intellectual aspirations and instead enforce an ugly, anti-intellectual,
dogmatic view on its people?  True,
starting with a football coach seems an odd choice, but it’s the sort of story
that will get national attention and put other people interested in academic
freedom on notice.

Since the odds that anti-choice complaints are going to
amount to nothing are sky high, there’s a strong possibility that the nuts will
show up and start picketing Kelly’s offices.  While this is going to be irritating, I hope Kelly can take
some comfort in this: If the Fetus People really do picket his offices and
games, that will just reinforce the public’s understanding that they’re the new
McCarthyites, and abortion—like communism before—is just a tool being used
to express the sadistic authoritarian impulse.

Commentary Violence

Jameis Winston, and the Overlapping of Football Culture and Rape Culture

Jessica Luther

Florida State University star quarterback Jameis Winston was recently accused of raping a fellow student. Football culture clouds our ability to see him as anything other than a famous kid with amazing athletic skills, while rape culture demands that we mistrust the victim, question her credibility, and try to poke holes in her story.

Read Jessica Luther’s follow-up piece about the Jameis Winston case here.

Earlier this month, only a few days apart, the Tampa Bay Times and TMZ made public-records requests to the Tallahassee, Florida, police department. Both were looking for a police report filed nearly a year ago by a Florida State University (FSU) student who accused Jameis Winston—FSU’s star quarterback and the front-runner for college football’s top honor, the Heisman Trophy—of rape.

After TMZ broke the story, coverage quickly began focusing on the site’s credibility and a possible police cover-up, accompanied by every version of victim-blaming imaginable. Following positive DNA test results from the woman’s rape kit, which definitively linked Winston to her that night, the media boiled the case down to a typical he-said, she-said debate. Winston, through his attorney, now claims it was consensual sex. The victim’s family, in response, released a statement saying, “To be clear, the victim did not consent. This was a rape.”

FSU has more than 40,000 students in a city of less than 187,000. I attended the school from 1998 to 2002, and saw Tallahassee flooded during home football games; restaurant wait times were astronomical, and traffic was horrendous. It is not an exaggeration to say that on those weekends, football was life in that city.

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This season, after a long drought of disappointing showings, FSU’s team has finally returned to the top of college football. Many credit Winston’s play and leadership as pivotal to the team’s current #2 ranking in the polls. As Stassa Edwards recently wrote on the Ms. Blog, Winston is seen as “more than a football player” in Tallahassee— “[h]e’s a hero or a saint.” Not only do the hopes and dreams of millions of fans rest on his throwing arm, quick legs, and ability to read a defense, but the economy of the city and the university do as well.

A single weekend when both FSU and its opponent are ranked in the top five, over $10 million flows into the city. (That number dips when the games are not as high-stakes.) In 2011, the football team alone generated $34 million in revenue, a significant portion of the $78 million that the entire athletic program brought in that year. When large athletic programs do well, applications increase and more students from out-of-state attend and pay higher tuition. Alabama is a great example of this. College football is big business.

It is no wonder that this particular case of a football player accused of rape has made headlines, monopolized large portions of SportsCenter’s coverage, and become yet another public referendum on the veracity of rape victims. (Spoiler alert: a lot of people assume the woman in this case is lying.)

It’s also very tempting to see this case as an isolated incident, so as not to have to question if there is a connection between the most popular and lucrative sport in this country and the rape culture that permeates so much of our lives. But as history has shown us, we know that not to be the case. Earlier this year, at the end of of the rape trial involving two Steubenville High School football players, Dave Zirin at The Nation wrote about why its important to interrogate where jock culture and rape culture overlap:

I am not asking if playing sports propels young men to rape. I am asking if the central features of men’s sports—hero worship, entitlement, and machismo—make incidents like Steubenville more likely to be replicated.

And they are replicated. Winston’s case isn’t even in isolation at FSU. In addition to Stassa Edwards, Adam Weinstein and Marci Robin have written pieces recently drawing attention to how football culture and rape culture both operate within Tallahassee and on FSU’s campus. On top of that, less than six months ago, in June 2013, FSU wide receiver Greg Dent was suspended indefinitely from the team after he was charged with second-degree sexual assault. In the coverage of the case against Winston, there is almost no mention of Dent.

In 2013 alone, there have been cases reported at Ohio State, Arizona State, Vanderbilt University, McGill University (which is, admittedly, north of the border in Canada), and the University of California, Los Angeles; the latter two happened just this month. The Vanderbilt case, which involved five football players, is ongoing and has been for months, with very little media coverage outside of Nashville, despite how horrific the crime was, how poorly the prosecution seems to be handling the case, and how high-profile the school is.

Last year, in 2012, there were allegations against players at the University of Texas, Appalachian State University, and the U.S. Naval Academy. The Naval Academy trial is still ongoing. The U.S. military is dealing with issues of sexual assault across all of its branches, which has been major news recently due to federal legislation being debated in Congress. But the Naval Academy case from 2012 is very similar to a rape that occurred at the same school in 2001, the earlier one ending not in a trial but simply a dismissal of the accused from the academy. And the Appalachian State case is similar to one from 1997 at that school.

I can keep going: Miami and Connecticut in 2011; Notre Dame and Montana (coach and athletic director may have been involved in the cover-up) in 2010; Michigan in 2009; Tennessee at Chattanooga in 2005; Brigham Young University, Arizona State (the school knew the rapist was a threat and did little to protect his victim), and Kansas State in 2004; Notre Dame in 2002 (one player pleaded guilty, transferred schools, played at Kent State, and then went into the NFL); and the University of Washington in 2001. Colorado football players were accused of raping women in 1997, 1999, and 2001.

On the high school level, Steubenville has drawn attention to other cases, including one in Torrington, Connecticut, and, more famously, one in Maryville, Missouri, where the rape victim’s house was burned down in a likely act of intimidation by members of the community.

Sexual assault and violence against women are issues at the highest level of football: the National Football League. According to Forbes, the NFL is “the most lucrative [league] in the world,” with an annual revenue of $9 billion—it’s the ultimate money-maker. A 2011 Rewire article noted multiple rape cases involving NFL players, including one of the most well-known—that of alleged serial assaulter Ben Roethlisberger.

There is a reason I can rattle off these cases: The culture around (and therefore, the economy of) football today is dependent on a society that minimizes and/or ignores rape. College programs, in order to lure top players—who they are not allowed to pay—to their schools, stroke the players’ egos and present the fantasy that beautiful women will be their reward for living on their campus. Dave Zirin points out that the fact that players are “treated like gods by the adults who are supposed to be mentoring them” is a critical factor leading some men to expect others to simply do what they want. Yet, at the same time that they are being held up as gods by some, others see these players only as potential dollar signs. For those in charge of teams, departments, and leagues, football is all about using up bodies in such a way that they profit from them. The stripping away of the humanity of a potential rape victim by a rapist is similar in many ways—though not directly parallel—to the dehumanization that takes places when university administrators, team owners, and league commissioners commodify the bodies of these players.

I can imagine a football culture that does not work this way. It would involve including a lot more women in all kinds of roles within teams, university athletic departments, and league administrations. It would include mandatory annual rape prevention training focused on teaching consent and empathy for the victim. (That we don’t teach these things already was a takeaway from the Steubenville trial.) It would ban the use of college women in recruitment, and it would treat women as regular fans of football.

In the end, whether or not Jameis Winston is guilty, we know he is deeply invested in a football culture that is incredibly problematic, especially where it intersects with rape culture. Football culture clouds our ability to see him as anything other than a famous kid with a nice-guy persona and amazing athletic skills. Rape culture demands that we mistrust the victim, question her credibility, and try to poke holes in her story. It creates this familiar narrative in which people who have invested their own hopes and dreams in Winston claim his innocence immediately and refuse to hear anything else.

No matter what happens in the Winston case, I do know this: Money will continue to flow, and games will be won. Football will march on and over whatever bodies it must. And many will cheer it on as it does.

Commentary Abortion

As Notre Dame Appeals Birth Control Benefit, Costs to Catholic Universities of Discriminatory Health Plans Increase

Bridgette Dunlap

It is now clear that no “compromise” short of freeing all health plans from any regulation whatsoever having to do with contraception will placate fundamentalist Catholic groups. But with the Notre Dame appeal also comes evidence that the costs of these suits to Catholic universities is rising.

On Friday, Notre Dame filed a notice of appeal in its lawsuit challenging the contraceptive coverage rule.  So, game on. It was not exactly a surprise when the bishops rejected the Obama administration’s latest overture to religiously-affiliated institutions. And it is now clear that no “compromise” short of freeing all health plans from any regulation whatsoever having to do with contraception will suffice. I didn’t expect all of these lawsuits to go away, but I was hoping, perhaps naively, that Notre Dame might accept the court’s dismissal of its lawsuit given the vocal disagreement with the legal and theological claims therein that has come from students and faculty at Notre Dame. (See hereherehere, and here. A dissent here.)

The lower court dismissed Notre Dame’s lawsuit for lack of standing and ripeness because Notre Dame is not currently required to provide contraception, having taken advantage of the one-year safe harbor period the Obama administration provided while the rule’s accommodation for objecting religiously-affiliated institutions is amended.  All but one of the courts to consider the issue have essentially said that no final rule means nothing to sue about. These cases are pre-mature. (Like I been sayin’!) The Obama administration released a new proposed rule on January 30th, but the rule still isn’t final yet.  Still, the closer we get to implementation of whatever the final rule is, the stronger the plaintiffs’ arguments become that it is time to reach the merits in these cases. (Though I believe Notre Dame lacks standing for other reasons that the government hasn’t argued.)

So why did I think Notre Dame might accept the court’s decision?  My general theory is that the administrators of these plaintiff universities would like to do what is in the best interest of their students and employees and understand that going out of their way to provide a substandard, discriminatory health plan is not the best route to doing so. But the administrators of these institutions are under significant pressure from bishops, donors, and other off-campus orthodoxy-enforcing bullies like the Cardinal Newman Society. The promoters of the litigation campaign against contraceptive coverage likely saw Notre Dame as the crown jewel of plaintiffs, given its place in the American Catholic imagination. Plus, there are few big name schools that could be plaintiffs since so many of them currently have health plans with contraceptive coverage: at least for employees that is, who have more legal protections and bargaining power than students. (I’m looking at you, Georgetown.)

Still in hot water over inviting President Obama to speak at Notre Dame, I doubt University President Rev. John Jenkins had much choice about the lawsuit. Once the suit was dismissed, I thought the Notre Dame administration, having done its part for the bishops’ campaign, might turn its energies to more pressing concerns. Or, if it wants to make sure its health plans are consistent with Catholic concern for access to healthcare, it could fix the inadequate maternity coverage in the student plan. Instead, it is doubling down on claims about contraception that are inconsistent with the legal and theological understandings of the majority of the Notre Dame professors and students who have weighed in on the issue.

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This is especially unfortunate given the important role Notre Dame played in the development of Catholic thought on contraception historically. Adding to the history of Notre Dame faculty members’ advocacy for contraceptive access I recounted previously, Kathryn Pogin pointed me to the voice of Notre Dame students in the debate within Catholicism in the sixties. For example, in a 1965 letter (page six here), a Notre Dame student argued for a change in the Vatican’s position and noted Dr. John Rock, a devout Catholic who was integral to the development of modern contraceptives, had lectured on Notre Dame’s campus the year prior. 

Since that time, the number of Catholics who accept the Church’s teaching on contraception has dwindled to almost nothing.  Even those who do accept it must make a further leap to accept the claim that the Catholic ban on birth control translates to the impermissibility of compensating employees of varying beliefs with a normal health plan, or even allowing employees access to separate coverage provided by third-party plan administrators per the new rule proposal. In the case of students, they must accept the claim that Notre Dame has a sincere religious belief that requires interference in a money-for-health-insurance transaction between the student and a third-party insurer that involves no university funds at all. 

I believe these lawsuits are bad for Catholic education. How bad, only time will tell. Multiple professors at Catholic-affiliated schools have told me they don’t want their kid going to their own universities now that their student health policies have come to light. I’ve tried, with mixed success, to convince concerned students admitted to Fordham Law that the University’s health center policies are not reflective of the Fordham experience, we are working on the problem, and they should come here anyway. More generally, the uncritical acceptance of the idea, by the media and even the Obama administration, that Catholic-affiliated institutions are conservative places where women should have expected discrimination in their healthcare benefits (and who knows what else) is making prospective students and employees rightly wary.   

These cases have further implications for our academic reputations. Notre Dame claims to have a sincere religious beliefs that Plan B and Ella are abortifacients, when in fact science has proven otherwise. Are Notre Dame biologists expected to accept the authority of the bishops as to how a drug works? In what other disciplines should we expect Catholic doctrine to trump the knowledge of academics?

These lawsuits are a warning not to accept the assurances of recruiters that any given Catholic-affiliated school is a welcoming place for scholars of all faiths, genders, orientations, or academic persuasions.   They undermine the idea that Catholic-institutions are home to research and education equal to that of secular schools, painting them as places one should expect to be controlled and indoctrinated. And sadly, these lawsuits must be viewed in the context of an ongoing crackdown on Catholic nuns, scholars and scholar-nuns.

I’ve been to more Catholic school than most priests. (I stole that line from a Notre Dame grad, but I’ve been to more than him.)  I am extremely grateful for my education and experience, but the claims of Notre Dame and other plaintiff schools cause me to question whether I can continue to recommend it to anyone else.

**If you are an employee or student of a Catholic affiliated institution of any kind and would like information about potentially signing onto a comment to the proposed Health and Human Services rule, an amicus brief in one of the lawsuits challenging the rule, or other cross-campus organizing and advocacy, please send me your contact information via this link.