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Game of the Week: Oklahoma vs. Notre Dame — The View from England

Oklahoma 13 — Notre Dame 30

Notre Dame logoIf anyone was saying Manti Te’o was only getting so much attention because it’s unusual to see a defensive players in the running for the Heisman Trophy, yesterday’s game will have hushed them. One sack, eleven tackles and a diving interception in the fourth quarter which ensured that there was no coming back for Oklahoma. The scoreline doesn’t really give a sense of how much the game went to and fro – especially since Notre Dame racked up 17 of those points in the last quarter – but there’s no explanations in stats charts, and “unbeaten” is a cheerful-sounding word.

Landry Jones got in all kinds of a fluster, it must be said. One badly botched snap early on left him facing an unenviable 2nd and 29 – inevitably he’ll take more blame than the center, which is understandable given that communication is a major part of his job and this is one of the more unfortunate sorts of miscommunication that can happen without the opposition forcing it. Then Te’o sacked Jones, which we can only exculpate Jones from by suggesting he couldn’t help it, which isn’t much of an exculpation! At the other end of the game, another dramatically sodded-up snap left Jones pelting back into his own endzone in the desperate hope that this remarkably irregular shape might bounce kindly for him. Either he did luck out, or he showed a level of improvisation which was largely lacking during the previous couple of hours, as he slung it out and into safe (if unexpected) hands before either a safety or actual touchdown could mar his record further. So dramatic and explosive recovery from a situation which resulted from a dramatic and explosive snafu – swings and, as they say, roundabouts.

Even when they weren’t dominating the scoreboard as much, Notre Dame’s offense seemed to have more sparkle about them. Where Jones made good, accurate passes, and Bell did the running business capably, Golson kept the defense moving and guessing. He didn’t always execute flawlessly, but he was exciting to watch. And let Cierre Wood’s 62-yard touchdown run not be neglected: it acted as something of a warning to the Sooners that if they didn’t shut things down, Notre Dame would capitalise on chances.

A meeting between the Sooners and the Fighting Irish is an opportunity to pause and think about the way football represents heritage on the field. Brent Musburger and Kirk Herbstreit in the commentary box were at pains to point out before the game started that here were two “storied” teams, and whilst I wish they’d find a less hackneyed adjective, they have a point. Both universities have old sporting traditions, but they also frame their teams as part of even longer strands in American heritage. The Sooners’ name, referring to those who jumped the gun somewhat on the land claims made possible by an Indian Appropriations Bill in the late nineteenth century, is invoked before the game by the Conestoga wagon wheeling about the place. The Fighting Irish have been so named since the 1920s, and sure enough we see a bloke in a green suit and bowler hat gesticulating and chattering on the touchline during games.

Whilst the names could be regarded as historical relics, the insistence on these mascots underlines how involved with particular visions of the past sports has become. The Sooners characterise their association with settlers as demonstrating a progressive, all-American, can-do spirit – the Fighting Irish’s name suggests grit, determination and the university’s Irish Catholic roots. In both cases, the heritage being drawn on is at least historically connected to the university – it’s a moot point who any heritage “belongs” to, but the names don’t provoke the kind of raised eyebrow which the Washington “Redskins” or the self-proclaimed #NoleNation might cause. But seeing the mascot of the “Fighting Irish” always makes me blench slightly, I think because it packages Irish identity as such a quaint, jabbering, leprechauny affair. When the commentators keep saying “the Irish are doing this…” and “the Irish feel that…” I rather want to put my hand up politely and suggest that what a bunch of sports fans in another country are doing has nothing to do with what the Irish are doing and feeling. It’s a rather more bilious version of the feeling one gets at pictures of frat boys vomiting green beer over each other each year in celebration of St. Patrick, as if Irish nationality was a sort of alibi people can adopt in order to drink too much and trash the neighbourhood.

Whether “Irish” means plucky underdogs or feckless puking wastrels, it is also the word used to designate actual people in an actual country. Perhaps it sounds pedantic to football fans to have this pointed out, but it sound odd to me to be told that “the Irish” (which includes me) are scoring points or partying in the streets. And I come from a generation who were alive back when a sentimentalised ole-country Oirishery – all shillelaghs and green jackets and red hair – was the favourite rhetorical device of people who funnelled money across the Atlantic to where actual Irish people were killing other actual Irish people. When it came draped in folk music, Guinness logos and misty landscapes, I believe terrorism was quite fashionable back in the Eighties. There’s the odd story in my family about it. I don’t say that the Fighting Irish offends me as a name for a sports team, but it does give me a quick jolt into thinking about how we use heritage and the kind of meaning we attach to it, as well as how other people might feel when their identity is packaged far more damagingly. Sports aren’t ever a closed system, and college football certainly isn’t – it’s part of our larger cultural conversation, part of the network of images we use to understand ourselves and represent other people. A particularly relevant point as Halloween approaches, as one group of Ohio University students memorably pointed out.

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