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Over Easy: Friday Free for All

Darius Walker touchdown Notre Dame at Air force

I’ve been thinking about football. Now, you might assume that because I live in the home of the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame, I would be thinking about football because this place went bonkers over the BCS championship. But I feel about the game the way I felt on November 7th: Thank gawd that’s over!

Instead, two football stories that have nothing to do with the action on the field have me thinking about football in a different way. The first is a Notre Dame story that seems to be in the past, done and buried with no resolution, no harm, no foul, although it surfaced again amid the attention to the BCS championship. The other still is unfolding in Steubenville, Ohio, and is getting uglier by the day. In the interest of post length, I’m going to focus on the Notre Dame case. It serves as a starting point for discussion of the topic of glorifying football and football players, reflected not only in assault cover-ups, but in the inordinate amounts of money poured into football programs, often at the expense of other worthwhile programs, at both the high school and college level.

I want to be clear about a couple of things:
1) I have NO concrete information from first-hand sources about the Notre Dame story. Info in this post is from my recollections and from local and national coverage then — and recently.

2) This post is not meant to disparage Notre Dame, which is good to its students and employees, a good citizen of the South Bend area, and strives to be a principled institution within the boundaries of its Catholic roots. I only use Notre Dame as an example of what I think is undue deification of sports in general, and football in particular.

Lizzy Seeberg was a 19-year-old freshman at Saint Mary’s College, ND’s “sister school” across a main road from Notre Dame. She accused a Notre Dame football player of assaulting her on Aug. 31, 2010, and 10 days later committed suicide in her dorm room after receiving threatening text messages from other members of the football team, and their friends and fans. “Don’t mess with Notre Dame football,” read one warning message. Police told the family they weren’t sure when they could follow up. “They said they were pretty busy,” said Lizzy’s mother, “because it’s football season and there’s a lot of underage drinking.”

Sports Illustrated picks up the story

Notre Dame police didn’t attempt to contact the accused player until nine days after the alleged assault and didn’t reach him until five days after Seeberg’s death. The story of Seeberg’s accusation and death remained largely unreported until the Chicago Tribune broke it in mid-November of that year. On Dec. 16, 2010, the prosecuting attorney for St. Joseph County announced that there would be no charges filed in the case, most pointedly because Seeberg’s written statement would be ruled inadmissible as hearsay, because she is dead.

The school refused to tell Lizzy’s parents if the accused player was punished internally. He was on the field for practices and games, with no interruption. The university’s president, Fr. John Jenkins, refused to meet with Seeburg’s family “on advice of counsel.” He wanted to keep himself detached from the situation, although he was “sure it was handled appropriately.” The civil rights office of the U.S. Department of Education conducted a seven-month investigation of Notre Dame, prompted by the Chicago Tribune coverage, that resulted in a settlement agreement in 2011 requiring the university to improve its handling of reported assault cases. I’m sure that was comforting to Lizzy Seeberg’s family.

The Nation’s article Notre Dame and Penn State: Two Rape Scandals, Only One Cry for Justice summarizes troubling issues that seem to make rape of boys (awful as that is) a huge scandal that brings down several prominent people AND threatens a major university’s reputation, while rape of young women is buried or covered up, even at a prominent Catholic university.

At too many universities, too many football players are schooled to see women as the spoils of being a campus god. But it’s also an issue beyond the commodification of women on a big football campus. It’s the fruit of a culture where politicians can write laws that aim to define the difference between “rape” and “forcible rape” and candidates for the Senate can speak about pregnancy from rape being either a “gift from God” or biologically impossible in the case of “legitimate rape.”

The other story, somewhat related, is much more timely. In Steubenville, Ohio, at least two (likely more) high school football players repeatedly raped a drunken young woman, and law enforcement and other prominent people worked very hard to paper over and bury the story. A cell of Anonymous, the hacker organization, went to work digging out buried videos and photos and other information about the events and their cover-up. This story is still unfolding.

Meanwhile, is there anything to be done to de-escalate the glorification of football, and sports in general, when those in administrative positions seemingly couldn’t care less about the collateral damage? Consider also the more recent (and more highly publicized) death of a Notre Dame student, Declan Sullivan, when a 40-foot-high hydraulic lift he was atop blew over in a 53 mph wind gust while he was filming a University of Notre Dame football practice. An internal investigation found that nobody was specifically at fault (lots of blame to go around). Is the almighty game worth these young lives, or all of the money lavished on football?

I wish I had an answer. or at least some idea how to address the problem. I don’t.

Photo: U.S. Air Force/1st Lt. John Ross, in the public domain

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I retired from the University of Notre Dame in the Office of Information Technology in 2010. I'm divorced, with two grown children and 8 grandchildren. I'm a lifelong liberal and a "nonbeliever."