June 1, 2007

Forget Wash U: Wheaton poses perfect rival on field and off

We play a lot of really weird teams.

That was my reaction when I wrote my first article ever for sports—a 200-word tour de force on an early-season men’s soccer match against UW–Oshkosh—and it has been a recurring thought over the last two years. Through my coverage of the Maroons, I’ve witnessed the rise and fall of Carthage, the comings and goings of the Augustana Vikings and the Luther Norse, and the return of pre-destiny with the Knights of Calvin. None, though, is as ridiculous on as many levels as the Wheaton Thunder.

On the field, Denny Hastert’s alma mater has become a D-III powerhouse. Its annual battles with women’s soccer are of seismic importance in the central region, and with two national titles in four years they’re an early favorite to repeat next year. But in 2003 and 2005, its playoffs were ended by the Maroon-and-White. The men are no pushovers either. Despite a 2–1 loss to Chicago at Stagg, they went on a Cinderella run in the NCAA tourney before falling in the National title game.

But like Athens–Sparta and Potter–Malfoy, the rivalry between Wheaton and Chicago transcends balls, strikes, and penalty shootouts. Off the pitch, Wheaton is a menace of a different sort. Put aside the fact that this spring’s graduating class was the first that was allowed to dance, and that students must sign an oath each year swearing off sex, drugs, and alcohol (rock and roll, presumably, is off limits as well). Attempting to ingrain a strong moral code was a founding principle of the school and is there to stay, even if it does make the college look like something out of Footloose. The problem arises when its intolerance threatens its educational legitimacy.

The Klan stopped targeting Catholics by the end of the 1930s. You’d think at some point Wheaton would follow suit. If in 1980, a year after winning the Nobel Peace Prize, St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta had sought a teaching position at Wheaton, she would have been summarily rejected. For that matter, if Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, or J.R.R. Tolkien had ever offered to teach a class on creative writing, they would have been turned down. That’s because our rivals from the western suburbs have a contract that precludes faculty from practicing Catholicism.

The issue at hand is not whether Wheaton has the right to hire whomever they want—as a private college they certainly do. Nor is it a judgment of whether their religious views are right or wrong. By restricting faculty to a single religious ideology, Wheaton cripples the higher education it wishes to provide. Firing—or choosing not to hire—otherwise exceptionally qualified faculty because they don’t fit a uniform religious standard might make sense if you’re working at a seminary, but not if the goal is to provide the best liberal arts education possible. Their staff comes from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, but if every professor is an evangelical Christian, there’s little room for diversity of opinion. It’s not the emphasis of a particular lifestyle that puts Wheaton over the edge, but the immediate dismissal of any other kind.

Wheaton’s longstanding subjugation of the life of the mind makes it a natural rival for the U of C. From its religious intolerance to its dismissal of evolution to its dominant soccer teams, there is something for everyone to root against. Wash U has been designated our rival-in-chief primarily because of conference affiliation and geography, but at a campus that has struggled in the past with apathy towards athletics, the Thunder are an ideological archrival that can bring out the school spirit in student body and faculty alike.

Sports writing is in my rearview mirror, but the Maroons will be a definite part of my future. I’ll be watching next year to see if men’s soccer can put it all together like the Final Four teams they beat last season. I’ll be at Ratner next winter to see if women’s basketball can turn the corner and channel its incredible potential into something great. And I’ll be in the stands whenever we play Wheaton, hoping the Maroon-and-White can pull off a victory for religious freedom and regional supremacy. True Phanatix don’t discriminate.