Three of the four finalists in the NCAA basketball championship last season were Roman Catholic colleges, and for the second year in a row a Catholic school won. Villanova, that champion, was also in the Final Four in 1939, the first year of the NCAAs, and since then 17 different Catholic institutions have achieved that level. In 1947 Holy Cross became the first Catholic college to win the NCAAs, and five more have also triumphed. Eleven other Catholic colleges won the NIT back in the quarter-century when it was still a genuine national championship. Thirty-nine of this year's 283 Division I basketball schools are Catholic; 12 of the 237 colleges with Phi Beta Kappa chapters are Catholic.
What do Duquesne, Georgetown, Holy Cross, Catholic U., Santa Clara, Fordham, St. Mary's and Marquette all have in common? They are Catholic schools whose teams once played in major bowls but have long since given up big-time football. (The undefeated University of San Francisco team of 1951, with Ollie Matson and Gino Marchetti, didn't go to a bowl, but legend has it that it may have been as good a college team as there ever was; USF has also given up football.) Among Catholic colleges today only Notre Dame, which is really something of an aberration, being a national institution, and Boston College, which experienced a recent divine intervention in the form of an avatar named Doug Flutie, field Division I-A football squads. Otherwise basketball has become the sport for Catholic colleges.
For many Americans college basketball is the outward and visible sign of Catholicism in the United States. And because private schools of any stripe tend to be smaller and more focused than the sprawling public mega-universities that they play games against, basketball has become even more the cynosure on the Catholic campus.
The perception that education has become the token white at the end of the Catholic basketball bench may be all the more damaging because, historically, Catholic universities have never been accepted as intellectual company, neither with the private nondenominational elite nor with the great state schools. Some of this snubbing has come, reflexively, from cynical Protestants, but even many American Catholics themselves have long questioned whether the term Catholic education is an oxymoron, like military justice. At many Catholic schools, as one Catholic historian has written, "Original research became original sin."
Moreover, as Catholic school basketball has thrived, it has seemed all the more contradictory—hypocritical?—that the standard-bearers for white Catholic schools are, in the main, black Protestants. Most people who watched a nearly all-black Villanova team upset a totally black Georgetown squad in the championship game last spring would probably be startled to learn that, notwithstanding what appeared on the court, Villanova is so white (98%), so Catholic (86%) and so suburban preppie upper middle class that it is known in its own bailiwick as Vanilla-nova.
Of course, much of this Catholics can't help. Abroad in the land, the image of almost all American universities is related to athletics. Basketball and football—programs—attract more attention than chemistry and Romance languages—departments. The question is whether religious schools can really afford to strike this deal with...well, with the devil, the same as secular institutions. In other words, can the Catholic colleges pursue the almighty dollar and answer to the Almighty at the same time? What price prime time?
In 1971, the last year before 1985 that Villanova made the Final Four, the Wildcats had to forfeit their second-place finish when their star player was found to be a pro. The only fix disqualification in the history of the Final Four was leveled against another Philadelphia-area Catholic school, St. Joseph's, in 1961. Boston College was caught in the fix trap four years ago. In 1982 San Francisco gave up basketball for three years after a succession of tawdry scandals that would have sorely tested even Jesus's inclinations toward forgiveness. The damage done to Creighton when one of its players had to go back to an elementary school to learn how to read after several years at the Omaha school remains incalculable. A scholar-athlete at Providence was charged with assaulting a teammate with a tire iron. Holy Cross's team took to racial skirmishing last year. Georgetown's reputation for fighting—at least half a dozen brawls in the last four years—is well established.
Now none of this is the peculiar province of Catholic higher education. Indeed, anybody even remotely familiar with football at Texas Christian and Southern Methodist can only draw the conclusion that the inherent problem with big-time college sports and religion is that the former is so pervasive, so rotten, so—let's say it—sinful that it is bound to soil any of the latter that lies down with it. Does religion need this?
Father William Sullivan, an ardent sports fan, is the president of Seattle University, which made it to the NCAA tournament 11 times with the likes of the O'Brien twins, Elgin Baylor, Eddie Miles and John Tresvant. Seattle even reached the finals in 1958 and no doubt would have won had Adolph Rupp of Kentucky not figured out how to get Baylor into foul trouble. Six years ago Seattle University gave up big-time basketball cold turkey, opting for a team in the NAIA. Says Father Sullivan now:
"In the last two years, schools that are led by two good friends of mine have won the NCAA. When that happens, you can't help but say to yourself, 'Wouldn't that be nice?' Then, after you've said that, you need to say, 'What about the hundreds of schools across the country that are pursuing that great mythical championship and spending millions and millions of dollars doing it and endangering their own educational ideals and integrity and never making it?'