Notre Dame to NCAA: Play Sports, Not Politics

Universities, not athletic conferences, should set policies on social and moral issues of the day, argues Holy Cross Father John Jenkins, Notre Dame’s president.


SOUTH BEND, Ind. — After North Carolina passed a controversial bill last spring requiring people to use bathrooms that correspond with their biological sex and nullifying local ordinances that offered some protections to “LGBT” (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) residents, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) said it would pull all of its national championship events from the state.

Now, the president of one of the most prominent universities in collegiate sports has broken ranks with the NCAA. 

Holy Cross Father John Jenkins, who leads the University of Notre Dame, raised objections to the politicization of sports in a commentary published prominently in the pages of The Wall Street Journal.

Father Jenkins’ statements also pointed to additional features questions about whether the NCAA had overstepped its mandate. Yet a Notre Dame alumni group that applauded his actions also expressed dismay that he did not use the opportunity to defend Catholic teaching on gender identity or his university’s own policies. 

Almost immediately after the NCAA made its decision in mid-September, homosexual-rights activists demanded that the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) — which includes the University of Notre Dame and Boston College — follow the NCAA’s lead. And when Clemson President James Clements, chairman of the conference’s council, confirmed that his league would also remove championship events from the state, he said it was the right decision.

“It is consistent with the shared values of inclusion and nondiscrimination at all our institutions,” said Clements in comments published in the Chicago Tribune.

Clements gave the impression that the ACC’s council of presidents had reached a clear consensus on the decision to follow the NCAA’s path and punish North Carolina for enacting legislation that has been attacked as discriminatory. Indeed, a statement from the ACC council reaffirmed its “collective commitment to uphold the values of equality, diversity, inclusion and nondiscrimination” and described the bill as inconsistent with these values.”

But Father Jenkins challenged the athletic leagues’ decision to pull their championship events from North Carolina in his Sept. 25 Wall Street Journal commentary, “The NCAA Isn’t a Moral Arbiter — Nor Should It Be.”

“The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) has gotten ahead of its member universities and its own constitutional principles,” wrote Father Jenkins.

“No matter how popular or profitable certain college sports become, athletic associations should not usurp” the primary role of universities in addressing such matters, Father Jenkins argued. “I was particularly disheartened that the NCAA took action without consulting its member universities.”


Individual Universities Should Decide

In his column, Father Jenkins noted that North Carolina’s House Bill 2 (H.B. 2) “requires that ‘multiple occupancy bathroom or changing facilities’ in public schools or maintained by public agencies be used according to a person’s biological sex, not gender identity.”

Though the NCAA and ACC framed H.B. 2 as an attack on the rights of transgender persons, “some citizens may wonder about the implications of substituting gender identity for biological sex in public restrooms,” said Father Jenkins.

“While attending to the rights and sensibilities of transgender persons, it’s important to also take into account the feelings of those who might be uncomfortable undressing in front of a member of the opposite biological sex.”

H.B. 2 is already the subject of litigation, and its future will be decided by the courts.

But for now, Father Jenkins contended, individual universities should set their own courses for dealing with such matters.

“When it comes to complex, contentious social issues, universities have a critical role to play in fostering reflection, discussion and informed debate,” he said.

Beyond the suggestion that privacy and safety concerns should be taken into account, Father Jenkins did not address the merits of the North Carolina law, nor did he reference Catholic teaching on gender identity.

In his 2015 encyclical, Laudato Si (The Care for Our Common Home), Pope Francis attacked efforts to impose the notion of “gender identity” onto society and urged his readers to accept their bodies as they accepted the gift of creation.

“The acceptance of our bodies as God’s gift is vital for welcoming and accepting the entire world as a gift from the Father and our common home,” the Pope states in Laudato Si.

“[W]hereas thinking that we enjoy absolute power over our own bodies turns, often subtly, into thinking that we enjoy absolute power over creation.”

During World Youth Day 2016, the Pope discussed this issue with the Polish bishops, noting that certain institutions want to teach gender identity. Francis said that it is “terrible” to teach children that they may choose their gender.


A Welcome Critique

William Dempsey, who leads the Sycamore Trust, a Notre Dame alumni group that has called on the university to strengthen its Catholic identity, told the Register that he welcomed Father Jenkins’s critique of the NCAA and ACC’s actions.

“Father Jenkins deserves praise for speaking out on this radioactive issue,” said Dempsey.

But Dempsey also raised questions about the limited range of Father Jenkins’ argument.

“It is disquieting to see Father Jenkins treating the issue as a close one, involving some undescribed ‘implications’ and a privacy interest — ‘the feelings of those who might be uncomfortable undressing in front of a member of the opposite biological sex,’” said Dempsey.

“It is a matter of ontological truth, as the bishops have made clear in their opposition to the administration’s directive to schools about bathrooms and dressing rooms and the like.

“As the bishops said in their May 16 statement, quoting Pope Francis, ‘Biological sex and the sociocultural role of sex (gender) can be distinguished but not separated.’”

Patrick Reilly, the president of the Cardinal Newman Society, an organization that promotes the religious mission of Catholic universities and colleges, told the Register that he was not surprised by the NCAA’s latest actions.

“The NCAA has been moving to this direction for a long time, and many of the colleges we work with have been concerned about it,” noted Reilly.

But Reilly also contended that the NCAA has little choice.

“The NCAA’s hands are tied,” he said, as he noted the Obama administration’s new interpretation of Title IX as prohibiting gender-identity discrimination.

At the same time, Reilly expressed dissatisfaction with the substance of Father Jenkins’ argument and suggested the university president had failed to offer a compelling case for the Church’s vision of sexuality, or even Notre Dame’s own guidelines for student life.

“Notre Dame is fighting this battle like a forced conscript, and without any apparent desire to win the issue. Is he willing to leave the NCAA if their rules violate Catholic teaching?” asked Reilly.

Notre Dame did not respond to further requests for clarification and for examples of campus forums and initiatives designed to address the ACC’s decision.

In recent years, Notre Dame has established outreach programs for students dealing with gender-identity issues, but Church-affiliated universities face growing pressure to change their internal policies. For example , the NBC Today show recently hosted a feature on the struggles of a male student who was transitioning to present as a female and was denied a place in a woman’s dorm at Notre Dame.


An Agent for Change?

Across the nation, athletes who identify as transgender now view the NCAA as an agent for change at Christian and Catholic colleges, many of which have sought religious exemptions from the Obama administration’s new interpretation of Title IX — a federal regulation that bars discrimination based on sex at schools that receive federal aid and is now used to mandate inclusive sexual identity policies.

In a recent USA Today story, Kansas State President Kirk Schulz, outgoing chairman of the NCAA’s board of governors, agreed that at some future point “the issue of rights for LGBT athletes at religious schools may be one on which ‘the NCAA does need to take some stands. But we can’t just do it without some robust internal discussions.’”

The NCAA’s decision has been touted by opponents of H.B. 2 as further proof of its discriminatory impact. And pundits predict the negative consequences for the state’s economy will serve as a warning for other states considering similar legislation.

“People might not like it, but this is how it works, and this is how big, powerful organizations help force change,” noted Dan Wolken, a sports reporter for USA Today.

In North Carolina, the debate over H.B. 2 has become a lightning rod for opponents of the GOP governor who is seeking re-election, and it may also surface as a national election issue, as Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton is known to favor the NCAA’s move.

“The @NCAA is right to pull tournament games from North Carolina because of the anti-LGBT HB2 law. Discrimination has no place in America. — H,” Hillary Clinton tweeted after the NCAA announced its decision.


Don’t ‘Weaponize’ Sports

The striking coordination of partisan messaging from political parties to college athletics, a once neutral sphere, will likely pose grave challenges to the independence of storied Catholic institutions like the University of Notre Dame, home of the Fighting Irish.

But National Review’s David French points to one more reason for putting a stop to the NCAA’s decision to take sides in a radioactive political debate: A fractured nation needs sports to provide neutral ground where fans can set aside partisan grievances.

“I don’t mind if individual players or owners express themselves, so long as it is clearly understood that all viewpoints are welcome,” said French in a column that accused the left of “weaponizing sports.”

“I mind when social-justice warriors try to wield the awesome economic power of sports — built via the pocketbooks of all Americans — to punish conservatives, especially Christian conservatives.”

Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.