An understandable field-storming at Notre Dame because of, if not despite, the pandemic

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — When Notre Dame upset No. 1 Clemson in double overtime Saturday, the 11,011 Irish fans in the stands did exactly what head coach Brian Kelly anticipated they would do.

They did what they shouldn’t have done.

They stormed the field.

It was stupid but understandable, dangerous but needed, expected but unavoidable.

“I told our team in our walk-through today, ‘Listen, I want you to know when we win this thing, the fans are going to storm the field, and with COVID being as it is, we got to get off the field and get to the tunnel,’” Kelly said after the dramatic 47-40 victory. “Now I beat them all to the tunnel, so that didn’t go over so good.”

Setting aside Kelly’s subtle and confident usage of when, he illustrated just how prevailing the pandemic reality has become at Notre Dame. His cautionary words to his team were proactive and thus responsible, as well as empathetic with the student body, a rare moment from a higher-up at the University this fall.

When those students stormed the field, Kelly understood it, given the drama, tension and excitement of the previous five hours.

“They made it feel like a true game,” Kelly said. “… They did their best to give us that feeling. When they stormed the field, you got a sense of a special moment at Notre Dame. I know our players did, as well.”

Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney also understood it, even if his team had to spend a few minutes picking its way through an unnecessary crowd during a pandemic to get to the visiting team tunnel at Notre Dame Stadium. It was only a few minutes, theoretically compliant with all CDC guidelines, but far from ideal given the lofty aspirations Clemson holds this season, ones already dented by a positive coronavirus test. The Irish players, too, for their part, largely got to the locker room relatively quickly, stragglers taking a few extra minutes but nothing near a concerning quarter of an hour. At which point, they enjoyed a mosh pit of their own creation.

“It was an epic game, emotional game,” Swinney said. “They were excited for their team.”

If Swinney could understand that stupid decision after being on campus for only 36 hours, certainly those in charge of the campus could, right? Wrong.

“As exciting as last night’s victory against Clemson was, it was very disappointing to see evidence of widespread disregard of our health protocols,” University President Fr. John Jenkins wrote in a letter to students Sunday night.

And therein lies the problem partly- but hardly-remedied by the on-field celebration. Talking with students on campus Sunday, the final whistle of the upset was only the match; the emotional release had been soaked in gasoline for four months, repeatedly doused by an administration recklessly at odds with common sense, respect and perception.

Jenkins announced a steadfast intention to open campus this fall back in May in the humble manner provided by only a New York Times editorial. He cited a “moral value” in bringing students to campus, and one of the top priorities of “our core university goals” would be to “offer an education of the whole person — body, mind and spirit — and we believe that residential life and personal interactions with faculty members and among students are critical to such an education.”

Those personal interactions lasted just a few weeks before Notre Dame implemented a two-week lockdown to slow a coronavirus outbreak, having ignorantly failed to factor in the obvious risks of 10,000 students traveling to campus to start the semester. Requiring a negative test in the days before arrival was a sound start to beginning the semester, but not following up on it with even a few days of quarantine and another test was not only foolish and fundamentally flawed, but the protocols seemingly-intentionally flew in the face of any successful bubble strategy seen leading into August.

The administration threatened dismissal to any students flouting the rules, essentially holding 10,000 18- to 22-year-olds hostage for their tuition. Meanwhile, as has been thoroughly and embarrassingly well-documented, Jenkins and Notre Dame faculty blatantly, dismissively and willfully flouted those rules by visiting the White House at the end of September for a party confirmed to be a super-spreader event, one in which the number of people wearing masks may have been matched Saturday night at Notre Dame by the number of students not wearing masks. That tone-deaf at best, woefully-insulting at least and perhaps most accurately credibility-costing decision led to a “vote of disappointment” in Jenkins from the Notre Dame faculty senate.

The students felt and feel taken advantage of and lied to by the very school they largely love. Nearly 1,200 undergraduates have tested positive for the coronavirus, some struggling to recover to the extent they returned home, underscoring how shoddy of an attempt the University made at creating a bubble atmosphere and the arrogance of ever professing the ability to do so during a global pandemic.

Publicly insisting football tickets would be restricted to students, faculty, staff and players’ families when staff’s family members can come from across the country and attend games is worse than hypocritical. It is disingenuous. The students know as much, and they took it as tacit approval to sell their tickets to recent alums who held onto their student IDs. Attending games this season was not a matter of resources as much as opportunism, but there are plenty of whispers of creative opportunity, not to mention the University hosting a wedding reception at the Louisville game.

Jenkins’ May op-ed said the University’s first priority would be “to protect the health of our students, faculty, staff and their loved ones.”

The campus student newspaper, The Observer’s Friday editorial pointed out, “Nearly 50 percent of the Notre Dame student body is under ‘severe mental distress.’”

So much for protecting their health.

Notre Dame Clemson
By no means was the field-storming ideal or advisable, but Notre Dame’s football team was able to largely avoid the crowds after beating No. 1 Clemson, 47-40, in double overtime on Saturday. (ACC Media)

Storming the field did not heal that mental distress, but it was a needed outlet. The students knew it was dangerous, but they also knew any student in attendance had tested negative that week and was clear of any known contact tracing concerns, 500 of their classmates not so lucky in quarantine and isolation with nothing but voided tickets. Nonetheless, group messages propagated as early as Saturday night scheming for red passes to jump the line for a coronavirus test. Some suggested they would go into voluntary quarantine until they can log a negative test later this week.

So when Jenkins mandated a negative test for every student before heading home at the end of the semester on Nov. 20, he was only publicly taking credit for trends already gaining steam on campus and a policy that was actually put in place last week. Still, that policy did not learn from the opening of the semester’s failures when it illustrated any travel should be preceded or followed with two weeks of quarantine.

Jenkins’ misguided posturing included nothing but a continued lack of foresight, understanding and empathy. This is a student body that conversationally references some level of feeling conned this semester. These students were locked in dorm rooms for two weeks only to see their public-facing leader taunt them at the side of a divisive and petulant president. Two classmates died in a car accident just two weeks ago, a third severely injured. That grief remains poignant, as shown during a moment of silence before Saturday’s kickoff.

All while monitoring and caring for each other during a pandemic, because they were not sure who else would.

As soon as Notre Dame allowed fans in the stands, and thus fulfilled director of athletics Jack Swarbrick’s spring insistences that football not be played if students could not watch, it made the field-storming unavoidable.

Kelly expected it, predicted it, understood it.

After an overwhelming semester, those students felt a surge of positive emotions for the first time in months. In their final game of the season, as perhaps the final fans in the stands at Notre Dame in 2020, they celebrated together as college students are inclined to do.

Any one of us not in those stands claiming we never would have joined in simply cannot comprehend the struggle those students have been put through this semester.

Storming the field was not a wise decision, no matter how long Notre Dame has awaited a win of that stature. It was worrisome and the coming test results may make it outright terrifying.

But more than that, storming the field was understandable, unavoidable and needed.