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In addition to all the new true believers in Gopher football there surely are new skeptics also, but not the kind with doubts about whether the team is really good. Rather, I assume there’s a sizable number who nervously fear, “We’re not turning into one of those fanatical southern states, are we, where football is not just king but pretty much godly?” No, we’re not, but what this season again has taught is how sports can nourish the souls of secular institutions.
Getting me thinking along these lines is an exceptional essay I just read, written two years ago and having nothing to do with football: “Contract or Covenant? Reimagining Public Research Universities in a Fracturing Nation,” by a friend of mine at the U of M, David Weerts. Citing two sentences from it can capture only a slice of his argument, but they’re adequate for quick purposes here.
“Throughout the 20th century,” he writes, “the American research universities became guided by contractual as opposed to covenantal values.”
And a page later, “I believe that a key priority for higher education leaders today is to create campus cultures that promote covenantal commitments.”
David is an associate professor in the College of Education and Human Development, my old home when I was a graduate student at the university during the late Paul Giel’s reign as athletic director.
My use of words such as “covenant” and “soul” pertain not to “religion” and certainly not to anything denominational. Think instead of variations on “spirit” and “joy” that are at once personal and shared. Enveloping celebrations resulting from years of striving, followed by great and surprising successes. After long treks through deserts, think water that refreshes—and a couple of hours later turned into post-game wine.
Stop me before I metaphor again.
I haven’t been on the Twin Cities campus recently, but might there be newly found superglue bringing the place together, at least among some constituencies, in some quarters, at least for a time? Might there likewise be jubilation reaching throughout the state as well as alumni and friends everywhere? All yes is the case, I would guess, thanks precisely to a winning, big-time, college football team.
As an immense, very public research institution, the University of Minnesota will never be home (nor should it be) to the kinds of embracing “covenantal values and commitments” David Weerts talks about and which are possible (though not necessarily to be found) at smaller, often religiously affiliated schools. But at least for a spell, we’re thoroughly enjoying what football has wrought. Plus getting a sense of what millions of young people and much older people in Alabama, Louisiana, Texas, and yonder relish with seeming religious fervor all the time.