On September 2, 2010 Lizzy Seeberg, a freshman at St. Mary’s College in South Bend, Indiana, received a text message:
“Don’t do anything you would regret. Messing with Notre Dame football is a bad idea.”
Two days earlier Seeberg had told her friend and her therapist that a Notre Dame football player had sexually assaulted her in his room.
The morning after the incident she did exactly what victims of sexual assault are supposed to do: she reported the incident to the police, in this case Notre Dame campus police.
Lizzy Seeberg Ignored, Then Disparaged
On September 10, 2010 Lizzy Seeberg committed suicide.
At the time of her death campus police still had not spoken to the player she had accused of sexual assault. Seeberg felt as though she was treated like a traitor and didn’t want what had happened to her to happen to anyone else.
Meanwhile, the player whom she accused never missed a game and was on the field for the BCS National Championship Game last week.
The St. Joseph County prosecutor declined to bring charges against the player. Granted, doing so would have been difficult without a living victim or eyewitnesses. But Notre Dame didn’t merely take the player’s side.
According to Melinda Henneberger, a Notre Dame grad and Washington Post writer who covered the Seeberg story for the National Catholic Reporter, university officials “portray the player as wrongly accused by an aggressive young woman who lied to get back at him for sexually rejecting her the first moment they were ever alone together.”
Joe Power, a Notre Dame grad and lawyer for the accused player, has gone so far as to compare Seeberg to Mayella Ewell, the white woman who falsely accuses Tom Robinson, a black man, of rape in Harper Lee’s classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird.
The fact that Seeberg was seeing a therapist has prompted her detractors to paint her as mentally unstable; Power suggests that, because Seeberg was on the antidepressant Effexor, she needed close supervision and should not have been allowed to go off to college. (As someone who took Effexor for two years, I can attest that there is no truth to Power’s assertion.)
School president Father John Jenkins refused to have any contact with the Seeberg family. After the Chicago Tribune had broken the story in November 2010, Fighting Irish head football coach Brian Kelly joked about the incident on a conference call with sportswriters, saying he didn’t know how the Tribune could afford to pay all the reporters who were asking him about the case.
A campus disciplinary hearing in February 2011 cleared the accused player of all wrongdoing. That same month, another young woman who claimed to have been raped by a football player decided not to file a complaint, because of what had happened to Lizzy.
Messing with Notre Dame football, after all, is a bad idea.
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Manti Te’o Believed, Then Protected
This Tuesday Deadspin revealed that Lennay Kekua, the girlfriend of star Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o who had supposedly died of Leukemia in September 2012, didn’t actually exist. Her story, which involved a car crash months before her death and her telling Te’o not to miss any games on account of her funeral, was a hoax.
We still don’t know if Te’o was himself fooled by the hoax or if he was partially responsible for creating it.
Notre Dame learned of the hoax on December 26. And when the Deadspin story ran earlier this week, University officials responded immediately, siding with Te’o and describing him as a “victim.” Notre Dame’s statement said that the school, after learning that Kekua wasn’t real, “immediately initiated an investigation to assist Manti and his family in discovering the motive for and nature of this hoax.”
Those who had followed the Lizzy Seeberg story picked up on the contrast between Notre Dame’s handling of Te’o’s situation and its response to Seeberg’s case.
The school that had been slow to investigate the claim of a freshman at neighboring St. Mary’s who claimed to have been assaulted by a Fighting Irish football player did not hesitate to launch an investigation on Te’o’s behalf. And where the university acted as though Seeberg were not telling the truth, it didn’t question Te’o’s story (at least not publicly).
Katie J.M. Baker, writing for Jezebel, said yesterday:
It doesn’t surprise me that more people know and care about Te’o than Seeberg. She’s just another victim of sexual assault — one who, according to Henneberger, some officials still allege was “asking for it,” because we don’t like to admit that college athletes can be rapists — but Notre Dame’s repeated and ready use of the term “victim” when referring to Te’o but not to Seeberg is awful.
Messing With Notre Dame Football Is a Bad Idea
The difference between Notre Dame’s response to these two incidents is disturbing, but not as disturbing as the similarity.
In both cases the school acted to protect the athlete.
Where there was ambiguity, the school sided with the football player. It appears that, in both instances, protecting the image of the university and its football program was the top priority.
Seeberg’s case was easy for the school to dismiss.
As mentioned above, there was no living victim nor eyewitnesses to support Seeberg’s account and thus no way to determine exactly what happened on the evening of August 31, 2010. Even before Lizzy’s death, her testimony would have been difficult to prove.
When someone such as Henneberger or the Chicago Tribune reporters came around asking tough questions, Notre Dame could hide safely behind ignorance. The only reasons for the school to have taken the situation more seriously were moral ones.
Notre Dame didn’t have the luxury of ignoring the Te’o story (though that is, for all intents and purposes, what it did from December 26 until Tuesday).
The Deadspin story left little doubt that Kekua’s existence and death were part of a hoax. And while Seeberg’s story lived in the margins of the Midwestern and Catholic media, the Kekua hoax quickly became the top national story the day it broke. Notre Dame’s best option was to respond immediately.
The same afternoon that Deadspin ran its story, Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick released a statement saying that the athletic department was aware of the hoax and stood by Te’o. The following day Swarbrick broke down in tears during a press conference about the hoax.
No prominent Notre Dame official shed tears publicly for Lizzy Seeberg.
If the goal of school officials was to protect the image of Notre Dame and its football program, then how they handled each situation makes complete sense.
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Notre Dame’s Questionable History of Handling Rape Claims
It’s sad that a university affiliated with the Catholic Church—a church that has historically been an advocate for those whom Jesus called “the least of these”—is so quick to defend its celebrated football players and so reluctant to take seriously the testimony of a scared 19-year-old girl who found herself up against one of the nation’s most powerful college athletic departments.
Of course, Notre Dame isn’t the first Catholic Institution to protect the powerful while failing to protect the vulnerable. And the Catholic Church is hardly the only body—religious or otherwise—to set aside its stated values in the interest of self-preservation.
Seeberg’s allegations weren’t the first allegations of rape or sexual assault that Notre Dame handled poorly or improperly.
In 1974 one woman accused six Fighting Irish football players of gang-raping her.
She spent time in the hospital and in psychiatric care but a school official nonetheless referred to her as “a queen of the slums with a mattress tied to her back.”
Prosecutors didn’t file charges against the accused, but the accuser was suspended for violating school rules. Then Notre Dame president Theodore Hesburgh said that school officials “didn’t have to talk to the girl; we talked to the boys.”
A woman who contacted Henneberger said that, in 1976, three Notre Dame football players, including two who had been involved with the 1974 incident, raped her when she was a 17-year-old student at St. Mary’s. When she reported the incident a top St. Mary’s official told her than one of the men had been accused of raping another St. Mary’s student but that she needed to “shut up and mind [her] own business.”
In 2002 a woman who had been gang-raped by four Notre Dame football players took her case to the South Bend police. The four players were expelled, but only one was convicted and none spent time in jail.
The victim said that, before the players were expelled, school officials tried to persuade her not to go public with the accusations, suggesting that no one would believe her anyway.
Notre Dame has plenty of questions to answer regarding its treatment of rape and sexual assault cases.
But this problem is bigger than Notre Dame.
Our Troubling Cult of Sport
It is a product of American sports culture, a culture in which football and men’s basketball coaches and players—and not professors or esteemed graduates—are the public faces of many of our largest and best-known universities.
Our pride in the schools we attended and/or the schools that represent the states in which we live is often tied to how they fare on the gridiron or the hardwood. The same devotion to major college sports that led Notre Dame to botch the Lizzy Seeberg case was largely responsible for Penn State’s failure to deal with Jerry Sandusky.
The image and the well-being of the football program—the face of the school and an important source of revenue and publicity—was the top priority.
This phenomenon even exists in high schools, as evidenced by the ongoing rape case involving two football players for the Steubenville (Ohio) High School Big Red and the allegations that school officials and local authorities have been protecting other players who were involved in the incident.
We see it in the story of former star running back Boobie Miles of Permian High School in Odessa, Texas, made famous by Buzz Bissenger’s 1990 book Friday Night Lights, who was disowned by the community that once cheered for him when an injury left him unable to contribute to the football team.
Theologian Clark Williamson defined an idol as “anything or anyone that claims, explicitly or implicitly, to be above question.”
Going by that definition, we live in a culture where sports idolatry is rampant. Star athletes and coaches are beyond reproach, at least until the evidence against them is so damning and so overwhelming that we can’t deny it.
The outcome of games becomes more important than the well-being of people. Many of us feel this way about our favorite teams and athletes, at least on some level, even if we are loath to admit it.
When you consider the cult of sport, Notre Dame’s actions in the Seeberg and Kekua/Te’o cases are consistent: stand up for the athlete, protect the program.
Sports fans, and particularly those who have some affiliation with Notre Dame, should hold the university accountable for its poor handling of these situations. At the same time, we need to consider the ways in which we turn our favorite athletes, coaches, and programs into idols, refusing to ask tough questions or to be honest about their faults.
We need to be sure that we aren’t putting the image and on-the-field success of our favorite teams above the truth and the well-being of actual people.