Defining the Challenges, Embracing Leading Solutions: Remarks at Notre Dame’s Annual Athletic and Academic Retreat

Notre Dame, Indiana
August 18, 2008

It is an extraordinary honor for me to be here today and to share this moment with all of you. My name is somewhat deceiving. DeGioia is a Neapolitan name – my father’s family all came to the United States from Italy in the wave of immigration in the early years of the last century. My mother’s family though came from Cork, a generation earlier. So for a Catholic kid who grew up on the legends and lore of this extraordinary university this is a special privilege.

I am also grateful because of how much Georgetown and Notre Dame share – the unique roles we play as Catholic universities in the context of American higher education; our membership in the Big East Conference; the deep, personal friendships that link together our two communities. Our own Director of Athletics, Bernard Muir served here with distinction before joining us at Georgetown. I am honored to be here with all of you.

I hope to offer some thoughts today that will prove both provocative and respectful of the work in which we are all engaged. My comments will place our engagement in intercollegiate athletics in the context of the broader work of the university and pose some questions regarding the trajectory of this work during this moment in time – when we share a responsibility for the moral implications of our decisions and actions that impact the programs in which our students engage in this dimension of their young lives.

My comments this afternoon will be organized around three themes:

(1) The mission and purpose of our colleges and universities and the role that intercollegiate athletics plays in support of the mission and purpose;

(2) A description of two competing logics that are always present in our communities and the implications of these logics; and

(3) A set of challenges we face as we accept the nature of our role in the unfolding future of athletics in these early years of this new century, and what I believe is the unique role of this unique university.

Mission and Purpose

Why do we do this? What is the purpose of an intercollegiate athletics program? To answer this, I believe it is helpful to go back to what one of my teachers used to call “first things.” To understand the point and purpose of intercollegiate athletics, we need to first ask, “What is the purpose of a college or university?” Why do we exist? For every institution there are unique aspects to the answer of this question, depending upon circumstances that confronted a founding community. When Father Moreau first sent a group of his community to America, and under the leadership of Father Sorin established this University, there were issues they confronted that would cast Notre Dame within a tradition that would ensure its distinctive character. But like any university, there is a commitment that we all share: to discover, create, and transmit knowledge.

At the very core of the idea of a university is a belief in progress – that our future can be better than the past: That through our deeper grasp of our reality…by the knowledge that we are discovering and the knowledge that we are creating…through our opportunity to engage youth…through the exchange of ideas and energy and passion and commitment, we can be build a better future.

Who is this “we”? In a university community it begins with our faculties who bring a hard-won wisdom to their engagement with the object of our work – the young women and men who are our students for the brief but formative years in which they are with us. Our students embody a hope that, together, they will be able to fulfill their promise and potential by developing their talents and abilities to the maximum capacity of which they are able. Our purpose is the development of each of our young people and we have determined over the course of our histories, that to do this requires many different kinds of resources – extraordinary faculty, libraries built over generations, cutting-edge laboratories, comfortable residence halls, chapels, prayer rooms and retreat programs, and broad and deep extracurricular programs, among which are our programs in intercollegiate athletics.

One of the ways we seek to fulfill our purpose is through our programs in intercollegiate athletics. We believe that for some of our students the strongest possible way to provide them with the framework to develop their promise is by complementing our curriculum with what is perhaps the most intense extracurricular program that we offer. For a community like this one – that competes so well in the Director’s Cup and offers such a comprehensive range of opportunities for your students – there is a deep commitment to this belief.

But let me say something more. A moment ago, I said that through the work of our universities, “we” build a better future. There are others beyond those who share the current academic opportunities on our campuses that also share in this mission. Athletics are one aspect, but a very important aspect through which we establish meaning in our lives. We make sense of our lives, we create meaning – these very sounds that I am emitting at this moment acquire meaning against the background of what philosophers call a “horizon of significance.” This horizon is the shared set of values and beliefs, the assumptions that we bring to any interaction, the customs and habits, the social institutions and structures, and the stories that orient us, that hold us together, that connect us over time. Intercollegiate athletics provides some of this background, some of the horizon through which we make meaning in our lives. Perhaps no university is this more true of than this one.

Think of some of the stories that hold together this nation – from the Gipper to the Four Horsemen…from Lattner to Hornung…from Parseghian to Rudy…from immigrants finding their identity in a new land to young women and men looking for examples of sportsmanship and achievement…it would be hard to find another university that has provided as many stories that connect us. For me, as a boy growing up in the San Joaquin Valley of California, my earliest memory of the excitement of college football was as a nine-year old, experiencing the 10-10 game against Michigan State followed the next week by a 51-0 victory over USC. Somehow I acquired a program for the SC game and it was one of my most prized possessions. In the school-yard I pretended to be Nick Eddy.

But as I grew, there were a few other moments that have forever been part of how I look at the world. Whenever things look challenging, whenever I wonder whether there is time to achieve my goals – and this includes virtually every game of basketball I have watched since January 1974 – I remember watching an 88-game winning streak by the most dominant program in collegiate history stopped by a team that was down by 11 with three minutes to go. When things seem hopeless I will often say to my wife, “Notre Dame was down by 11 and that didn’t stop John Shumate and Gary Brokaw and Dwight Clay from thinking they could beat Bill Walton and the indomitable Bruins.”

I know for a generation younger than me, many find similar moments in the experiences made possible through the leadership of our long-time head men’s basketball coach, John Thompson, Jr., and now for a new generation, through the leadership of his son, John III. Three Final Fours in the mid-80’s, principled moral stands on issues of access and opportunity, consistent performance at the highest levels in men and women’s lacrosse, track and field, and sailing – have all provided moments for my own community that are forever iconic in our memories.

Athletics provides a way of bringing communities together, of providing opportunities for celebration and joy, for ensuring moments that we can all recall and connect back to, and for remembering times and moments when we were becoming the women and men we are today. In addition to providing opportunities for our current students to fulfill their promise, we also provide some of the stories that hold our communities together.

Two Logics

It would be misleading if I were to offer these remarks without acknowledging some of the fundamental challenges we face in attempting to offer our programs in intercollegiate athletics. Thus far my comments reflect an idealized perspective of intercollegiate athletics. But I have been engaged in this work too long and involved in too many “reform” initiatives to be in denial about the challenges we face. Whether we focus on academic performance of students engaged in intercollegiate athletics, particularly in the sports of football, basketball and baseball; or the disciplinary issues confronting many of our programs; or gambling; or the use of performance enhancing drugs, the range of issues that demand our vigilance is staggering. Over more than two decades I have also experienced the stubborn resistance to reform that has characterized intercollegiate athletics since President Roosevelt launched the first effort that resulted in the creation of the NCAA.

In the context of the various settings in which I participate in the oversight of intercollegiate athletics, I have said something to the effect that if we were to completely scrap the current structure for intercollegiate athletics, if we completely disbanded the NCAA as we know it today, within twenty-years it would be back looking much like it does now. Do I really think that if we broke down the entire structure of intercollegiate athletics and could start over, it would pop back up like Banquo’s ghost and continue to haunt us? Well, there may not be laws of nature that sustain the status quo, but any student of efforts to reform intercollegiate athletics will conclude that there are strong obstacles to change.

Why such resistance? My academic training is philosophy and so I bring those sensibilities to this discussion. Let me begin by saying that, at the fundamental level, the problems we wrestle with regarding intercollegiate athletics are not just a matter of people’s good will or good intentions. Nor are they simply a matter of misplaced priorities. I think the challenges we face in intercollegiate athletics — and the difficulties of reform — can be understood best through a framing that captures a deep, core conflict of the human condition. This conflict is between two competing and compelling understandings of what constitutes human excellence.

What are these two frameworks? The first holds that human excellence is best understood as a balance – as an integration – among the various dimensions of our humanity. Let me explain: We have intellect and we have reason; we are capable of artistic expressions; we can communicate between and among one another; we feel emotions; we have religious experiences and sensibilities; we are social and political beings; we are capable of enjoying ourselves; we can make moral judgments. The full inventory, blended together, characterizes what it means to be human. There is a deep resonance with this conception of excellence and the tradition that guides this university. Within the “natural law” approach, we call this human flourishing.

From this perspective, human excellence can be understood as the ability to find the proper harmony within and among these many qualities.

The second understanding is very different. It holds that human excellence is best demonstrated in boundary-breaking achievements. Excellence means performing feats that others can’t even imagine, forging beyond the limits of previous accomplishment, pushing back the “frontiers,” going where others have not gone before. Typically this form of excellence requires that one sacrifice the well-roundedness and harmony to the focused, unyielding pursuit of truly unprecedented discovery or performance.

I will label these two understandings “logics,” because, once you accept either of them as a guiding assumption, they catalyze and justify whole sets of decisions or actions. I’ll call the first “Aristotelian” because I think it captures an understanding of the human condition first mapped by Aristotle. Strictly speaking, it is not “Aristotle’s view,” but the perspective I hope to explicate does owe many of its key concepts to a tradition that originates in his Nichomachean Ethics.

The second logic is a little more complex to label; with apologies to many in my discipline who will recoil at the sweeping generalizations I’m about to make, I think that calling it “Nietzschean” will help draw out its dimensions.

In the Nietzschean logic, human excellence can be found in the “limit-experience.” Exceptional people define themselves through exceptional accomplishments. Human excellence is not found in the affective feeling of some fleeting moment of “balance.” Life should be lived at the edges, on the boundaries, in the pursuit of triumph. By definition, everyone can strive to live in Aristotelian balance, while few can reach Nietzschean greatness. In this “logic” those who can – whether as individuals or as groups – are challenged to make every sacrifice necessary in the quest to redefine standards of achievement by which humanity measures itself in a particular endeavor.

I think the Academy as a whole, and not simply our athletics programs, is shaped by the conflict between these two logics. We encourage both. We celebrate both. We contain this conflict within our walls and labs and libraries and playing fields. Negotiating this conflict is one of the defining challenges of the Academy, and doing so well is among the most vital roles we play in our society, which is itself sometimes torn on tension between these two ways of viewing excellence.

Let me define both a little more.

For Aristotle, each of us is on a journey, seeking the point and purpose of our life, our telos. We all share the same end — eudaimonia, or “human flourishing” – but how we orient our lives to achieve it will be unique for each of us. For Aristotle, such flourishing occurs when our pursuit of our own unique point and purpose, our proper end, occurs with all things in balance. What sustains such a balance? Habits, dispositions, or – more specifically – virtues. A virtue is the “mean” between two extremes of excess and deficit, with respect to a particular action or emotion. For example, in the “sphere of action or feeling” involving “fear and confidence,” courage is the virtue between the excess of rashness and the deficiency of cowardice. The emphasis is on balance.

The competing logic places emphasis elsewhere. Nietzsche establishes the tone for this tradition when he writes: “The most spiritual of men, the strongest, find their happiness where others would find their destruction, in hardness against themselves and others, in experiments; their joy is self-conquest…Difficult tasks are a privilege to them; to play with burdens that crush others, a recreation.” This is a tradition that has a deep hold on our public consciousness today. We recognize it immediately in the world of athletic competition.

Some examples: Like many, I was riveted a few summers back when Lance Armstrong attempted a feat that was unprecedented – six straight Tour de France victories. In a sport where each day’s effort is the equivalent of running a marathon, no one had done this before. How can we take the measure of his achievement, in terms of what it required? A few quotes from some articles that explored these issues:

• “The effect on the human body of competing in the race is unknown. The effort requires an expenditure of 6000 calories a day. It is impossible to replace this level of caloric output. The body cannot replenish itself. The race literally eats away at the human body.” (Messenger 89)

• “In preparation for the critical uphill time trial at the Alpe d’Huez, Lance rode up and down the mountain 10 times in May alone, studying every bend, gauging the best line to use through the corners, checking where to shift gears before the steepest grades, and looking for flatter sections where he’ll be able to crank back momentarily to conserve energy. He also made reconnaissance trips to all of this year’s other mountain climbs and had ridden the Stage 19 time trial course at Besancon and over the cobblestone sections in Stage 3.” (Wilcockson 66)

• Writing in the Fall of 2004, “With the race coming down to just seconds…the smallest adjustments in preparation can make the difference. Some athletes might cheat to get that edge: Eight elite cyclists have died since January 2003 from heart failure, possibly due to the use of performance-enhancing drugs….” (Wilcockson 62)

• “The average life expectancy of a world class cyclist is 51.” (Messenger 89)

Presenting these remarks in the mid-point of the Summer Olympics provides new examples. I couldn’t get enough of the quest for eight gold medals last week by Michael Phelps. It was beautiful and moving and awe-inspiring. Consider that in just nine days, Phelps swam 17 races; and with warm-ups and warm-downs, he covered about 70,000 meters. (Kaufman)

Earlier this spring, he headed to Colorado Springs with some teammates and his coach for “one last brutality: a training camp at 6,000 foot altitude…Seventy practices in 24 days….” Phelps described this as his “blackout mode…No one can get hold of me. I don’t have to worry about anything, and I have no commitments—that’s my favorite part, I just attend to what’s coming up.” (Casey)

By the definition I am proposing, this form of excellence – embodied by Armstrong and Phelps – qualifies as a “limit experience,” more in line with the logic of Nietzsche than of Aristotle.

Now, what is the relevance of this framing for understanding the context for competition in intercollegiate athletics? I’d like you to recall a few scenes from the 1981 film, Chariots of Fire. These scenes capture the unprecedented move of a young British sprinter, Harold Abrahams, to engage a “professional” coach, Sam Mussabini, to help him prepare for the 1924 Olympic games. Or consider another extraordinary example from these past few days, the quest of Dara Torres: “Torres’s retinue includes a head coach, a sprint coach, a strength coach, two stretchers, two masseuses, a chiropractor and a nanny, at the cost of at least $100,000 a year.” (Weil)

When Harold Abrahams makes a decision to employ a professional coach, the logic that is deployed places him beyond the realm of accepted practice. I can’t really comment on the meaning of the team that Dara Torres put in place to provide her with the support necessary to pursue her dream – I don’t know enough to compare her approach to accepted practice. Why they do so however, is the same – to maximize performance, to set a new standard, to feel the Nietzschean satisfaction – a restless, “spiritual” satisfaction – of transcending human limitation. Who can blame them? Do any of us say that either should level their aspirations and settle for less?

But Harold Abrahams and Dara Torres are not just competing against themselves. Each has real opponents driven by the same hunger to blow past them and the assumed limits of human performance. Do their competitors have any choice but to follow them down this road? The move to engage a professional coach for Abrahams, to assemble a team for Torres, places them both in a “logic” that moves them into a domain in which their questions, choices, decisions, and actions are of a different kind.

Among the 1,024 NCAA colleges and universities in the United States, 117 are Division 1A football schools, which includes the 64 BCS schools. Once a school makes a choice to hire a full-time football head coach, or full-time assistants; or to pay a coach an annual salary of $2 million or more; or when one school builds a new indoor practice facility and this becomes an established expectation…it makes it very difficult for others to compete unless they follow that logic.

When such escalations look like an out-of-balance arms race run-amok, we recoil; but when we witness awesome examples of athletic accomplishment we feel inspired. Therein lays a fundamental tension.

When we examine the reform efforts of the past decades we see right away that most of the focus has been on two sports – football and men’s basketball – for three reasons.

(1) These are the two sports that have held consistent, widespread public interest over a sustained period of time.

(2) The money involved in these two sports is of a different order of magnitude. The CBS contract for Men’s Basketball will bring $6 billion over 11 years to participating institutions. CBS will pay the NCAA an average of $545 million a year over the life of the agreement. All eyes will be on the negotiation in January when the BCS schools enter negotiations for a new agreement beyond the current $330 million, four-year agreement.

(3) These two sports are the most obvious examples where leading institutions of higher learning have pursued a Nietzschean logic of excellence rather than the Aristotelian.

Who do we choose that path? I think we need to recognize the relevance of Nietzschean logic and “limit experiences” to the mission of higher education. Look at either of our institutions. Part of our academic mission is to push our students to test their limits. We place great demands on them, to help them find out what they can do now and to set a trajectory of future achievement. Does anyone think that pursuing pre-med or classics or computer science or engineering at a great university lacks elements of the Nietzschean logic? At Georgetown, we very definitely try to leaven the logic of extraordinary achievement with an Aristotelian respect for the mean and, in our case, a Jesuit appreciation for the claims of faith, friendship, and social justice; but it is undeniable that we support and often encourage Nietzschean endeavor.

If we reflect on our own lives, we place great value on teachers and faculty whose extraordinary demands enabled us to see parts of ourselves – talents that were hidden – that without those demands we would have never seen. Indeed, look at the culture of research embodied by the faculty of U.S. universities. One of my colleagues at Georgetown spent some ten years writing a definitive study of the work of the philosopher Heidegger. Another spent years and traveled to China to write a book about how a single T-shirt was made.

American research universities are explicit in providing support for faculty to engage in these limit experiences. We want our faculty working at the outer boundaries of current understanding. We define our missions with terms like “at the forefront of knowledge,” or “pushing back the frontiers of knowledge.” We seek to create communities that will encourage, reward, promote, and sustain scholars and researchers who venture out into this terrain. Sometimes we are criticized for this commitment. Outside of the academy, our faculty’s work can look rarefied, unusual, overly specialized, and out of the mainstream. We defend that, because people who are pushing boundaries need space and time and freedom within which to create.

Of course, we find such driven people in all domains, in all social practices. Sometimes there are casualties. Often the cost of performing – for living out at this edge – can be difficult to reconcile with the demands of everyday life. In fact, universities are very good at providing supportive contexts in which talented researchers and thought leaders can expand the boundaries of knowledge, whether in the arts or sciences or in other fields.

Why are we good? At our best, we provide the resources people need to compete successfully and do their best work. At our best, we promote ethical reflection that encourages Nietzschean pursuit, but constrains actions that would be immoral, illegal, or dishonest. At our best, we bring together strivers in many different endeavors so that the breakthroughs of one person or one team can inspire and catalyze others. At our best, especially with undergraduates, we provide resources that support the holistic development of the individual – like counseling, academic advising, health and psychiatric services, tutoring, community service opportunities – for precisely those people who are engaged in one activity with Nietzschean focus, and thus may not immediately recognize the value of these resources fully. And, at our best, we create other supportive frameworks that allow members of our community, when they return from their Nietzschean striving (even if just to recharge their batteries), to synthesize and integrate the experience. In a university community, this integration helps all; we want them to return and share what the experience has taught them – the lessons learned both from reaching goals and, yes, from falling short.

My point is this: The tension between Aristotelian logic and Nietzschean logic doesn’t only play out in questions related to athletics. Throughout our society, we live this tension between the logic of balance – the logic of integration and synthesis – and the logic of the singular distinction. A fundamental commitment of the university is to support and sustain people in the living of this tension. In this way, intercollegiate athletics reflects a driving characteristic of the university and is not simply the aberrational force it is often portrayed as being.

The Challenge for Notre Dame

In closing I wish to offer some final thoughts that will focus on the unique role that this university plays, and must continue to play, in intercollegiate athletics. You are unique. It goes well beyond your NBC contract. It goes beyond your ability to sustain competitiveness over the course of a century of NCAA college football – to win in different eras with different styles of play. It goes beyond the breadth of your program. It goes beyond your ability to sustain competitiveness with an enduring commitment to integrity and to academic excellence, by whatever measure one wishes to use – graduation rates, Academic All-Americans. All of this gives you an authority – in fact the most powerful form of all authority, a moral authority – to model and advocate for the standards by which the game will be played.

This moral authority will be needed in the coming years as we all face the implications of extending the Nietzschean logic in a new century. Among the questions we face:

• Do we want our students in every sport in which we field a team, to compete at the highest possible levels? Do we want to secure a place for some student athletes in some sports to compete at levels that are a little less demanding?

• How far we will go in accepting the assumptions, values, and demands of the entertainment industry? To sustain our current trajectories, we have become partners with media conglomerates. We couldn’t have taken our programs to our current level without this partnership. But our decisions cannot ignore the needs of our partners – so we now play some of our games on days and at times that meet the needs of these partners. What other demands will we need to respond to in the context of these partnerships?

• How will we develop our young talent in the sport of basketball? Watching Michael Phelps and his teammates on Saturday evening, one of them commented on how meaningful it was for them to be competing in front of the two greatest athletes in their sport – Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. It can’t be lost on anyone committed to the collegiate experience that the two best players in the world skipped that which we hold very dear. Our current framework will not hold for another generation. What role will we play in the construction of a new framework for the development of our best athletes engaged in the sport of basketball? We face similar questions in other sports, most notably, baseball.

• How will we manage the current framework for post-season play in football? The pressure for a playoff, in whatever form is proposed…we can easily imagine a future where a 14 game season is the norm for our best teams. Did we lose some credibility when we expanded to 12?

• Will our current regime of testing for performance enhancing drugs sustain the integrity of our games when those in other contexts – Major League Baseball, cycling, track and field – all proved to be inadequate?

Which leads to one last question – the health of our students. Just a few facts:

• The 32 lineman on the roster of the 1994 Nebraska National Championship Team weighed an average of just under 260 pounds. In comparison, the 14 Nebraska offensive linemen heading into this season average slightly more than 305 pounds. (Washut)

• The average weight of the starting Kansas University offensive line was 260 pounds in 1985. This season, the offensive linemen weigh in at 293 pounds, an increase of 33 pounds in just 20 years. (Colaianni)

• For comparison, average weight for offensive linemen in the NFL is 318 pounds, up from 281 in 1985. (Schronbrun)

It is no doubt obvious by my own appearance that I may be a little fixated on weight! Nevertheless, what are the implications of this manifestation of a Nietzschean logic for the health of our students engaged in competition?

Will the logic that characterizes the worlds of a Lance Armstrong or a Michael Phelps ultimately trickle down to intercollegiate athletics?

No doubt in our conversation this afternoon and evening, we will identify an even broader range of issues that will define this next generation. My point is this: No institution looms so large nor has a claim to moral authority in responding to these challenges like Notre Dame. Certainly you have earned it. But more important, it is at the heart of your very identity as a University community. You accept this role and responsibility by being who you are. Last Fall, in describing the beatification of Father Moreau, Father Jenkins captured the essence of your identity:

“Among his leading principles, Father Moreau believed ‘the mind will not be cultivated at the expense of the heart’…Father Moreau…said ‘Society has a greater need for people of values than it has for scholars.’ These thoughts remain fundamental in our efforts to educate talented students whose hearts, hands and minds reach out to those around them.”

There is only one University of Notre Dame, and by being true to your identity, you will ensure that in this generation, these important moral challenges will not go unheeded or unanswered.


Casey, Susan. “8 the Quest.” Sports Illustrated 28 July 2008. 14 Nov. 2008 <>.
Colaianni, Ryan. “Pounds of Performance.” The University Daily Kansan 1 Dec. 2005. 14 Nov. 2008 <>.

Kaufman, Michelle. “Phelps gets gold No. 8 in world-record time.” The Miami Herald 16 Aug. 2008. McClatchy Washington Bureau. 16 Aug. 2008. 17 Nov. 2008 <>.

Messenger, Robert. “Making the Grandest Tour.” The New Criterion 22 (June 2004).

Schronbrun, Zach. “Battle of the Bulge: SU linemen cope with pressure of playing positions with dangerously increasing weight levels.” The Daily Orange 27 Mar. 2006. 14 Nov. 2008 <>.

Washut, Robin. “Emphasis on size has changed face of linemen.” College Football. 15 July 2008. Yahoo Sports. 17 Nov. 2008 <>.

Weil, Elizabeth. “A Swimmer of a Certain Age.” The New York Times 29 June 2008. 14 Nov. 2008 < t.html>.

Wilcockson, John. “The Ride of His Life.” Men’s Journal Aug. 2004.