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Continued: Why I won't root for Notre Dame

  • Article by: MELINDA HENNEBERGER , Washington Post
  • Last update: December 6, 2012 - 11:31 AM

Well, since you asked - and many of my friends have, some more than once - no, I will not be cheering for my alma mater, the University of Notre Dame, to win big-time college football's championship on Jan. 7. What's really surprising me are those who believe as I do - that two ND players have committed serious criminal acts, sexual assault in one case and rape in another - but assumed that I'd support the team anyway, just as it is.

"Aren't you just a little bit excited?" one asked the other day. There are plenty of good guys on the team, too, I'm repeatedly told. And oh, that Manti Te'o is inspiring. I don't doubt it. But as a thought exercise, how many predators would have to be on the team before you'd no longer feel like cheering?

Sexual violations of all kinds happen on every campus, I know, and neither man will ever be found guilty in court; one of the victims is dead and the other, according to the Notre Dame student who drove her to the emergency room afterward, in February 2011, decided to keep her mouth shut at least in part because she'd seen what happened to the first woman. Neither player has ever even been named, and won't be here either, since neither was charged with a crime.

The Department of Education's civil rights office is well aware of the second case, though; in fact, federal investigators were on campus when it occurred, as part of a seven-month investigation into the way Notre Dame handles such reports. And as a result, with its Title IX funding on the line, the university marked the 40th anniversary of coeducation in 2012 by changing the way it investigates sexual assault for the second time in two years.

I've spent months researching these cases and written thousands of words in the National Catholic Reporter on the whole shameful situation, some of which you might have heard about: Two years ago, Lizzy Seeberg, a 19-year-old freshman at Saint Mary's College, across the street from Notre Dame, committed suicide after accusing an ND football player of sexually assaulting her. The friend Lizzy told immediately afterward said she was crying so hard she was having trouble breathing.

Yet after Lizzy went to the police, a friend of the player's sent her a series of texts that frightened her as much as anything that had happened in the player's dorm room. "Don't do anything you would regret," one of them said. "Messing with Notre Dame football is a bad idea."

At the time of her death, 10 days after reporting the attack to campus police, who have jurisdiction for even the most serious crimes on school property, investigators still had not interviewed the accused. It took them five more days after her death to get around to that, though they investigated Lizzy herself quite thoroughly, even debriefing a former roommate at another school with whom she'd clashed.

Six months later - after the story had become national news - Notre Dame did convene a closed-door disciplinary hearing. There, the player testified that until he actually met with police, he hadn't even known why they wanted to speak to him, though his buddy down the hall who'd warned Lizzy not to mess with Notre Dame football had spoken to the cops 13 days earlier. The player was found "not responsible," and never sat out a game.

A few months later, a resident assistant in a Notre Dame dorm drove a freshman to the hospital for a rape exam after receiving an S.O.S. call. "She said she'd been raped by a member of the football team at a party off campus," the RA told me. I also spoke to the RA's parents, who met the young woman that same night, when their daughter brought her to their home after leaving the hospital. They said they saw - and reported to athletic officials - a hailstorm of texts from other players, warning the young woman not to report what had happened: "They were trying to silence this girl," the RA's father told me. And did; no criminal complaint was ever filed.

It's not only what I believe went on at that off-campus party, or in the dorm room of the player Lizzy accused, that makes it impossible for me to support the team, though that would be enough. The problem goes deeper than that, and higher, because the man Lizzy accused had a history of behavior that should have kept him from being recruited in the first place. And as bad in my book as the actions of those young men was the determination of the considerably older men who run ND to keep those players on the team in an effort to win some football games.

Among those being congratulated for our return to gridiron glory is Notre Dame's president, the Rev. John Jenkins, who refused to meet with the Seeberg family on advice of counsel, and other trustees and administrators who've whispered misleadingly in many ears, mine included, in what I see as a deliberate attempt to protect the school's brand by smearing a dead 19-year-old.

(Yes, she suffered from depression, but according to her therapists was neither "unstable" nor a teller of tales. No, she had never before accused anyone of such a thing. And no, she had never before attempted suicide.)

At first, Notre Dame officials said privacy laws prevented them from responding. But after some criticism, Jenkins told the South Bend Tribune he'd intentionally kept himself free of any in-depth knowledge of the case, yet was sure everything had been handled appropriately.

The school's "proof" that Lizzy lied is that she told police the attack stopped after the player received a call or a text. Phone records show it was instead the player who called a friend. Case closed, right? Sure, if you don't think someone in the middle of both a physical and an anxiety attack could possibly be mistaken about whether her assailant stopped to take a call, or make one.

Joanne Archambault, who ran the San Diego police department's special victims unit for a decade and trains cops around the country, told me for my National Catholic Reporter story that because of the way the brain processes information in traumatic situations, victims almost always get some details wrong. Only the phony reports are perfect.

I have no trouble understanding the many fans who don't know the facts of these cases. Or even those who tell themselves well, maybe, but innocent until proven guilty, right? Lucky them, I say.

The alums who mystify me are those who know the real story, believe it, and are giddy still over a winning season that's at least in part the result of wrong behavior. I did myself a favor recently and unsubscribed from the alumni e-mails touting the school's good works and asking, "What would you fight for?" (Football?)

My husband says he continues to be amazed by the depths of my disillusionment; had I really thought they were so much better than this? You bet I did; in fact, Notre Dame isn't Notre Dame if it isn't, which might explain why officials maintain to this day that they've done nothing wrong, have never besmirched Miss Seeberg's memory, and have no idea how so many fans think they know so much about her. (Here's how: A longtime ND donor I interviewed said a top university official told him straight up that Lizzy had been sexually aggressive with the player rather than the other way around: "She was all over the boy.")

Though 13 Seebergs went to Notre Dame and Saint Mary's before Lizzy, her family is sitting this season out, of course. Yet in their Chicago suburb, football fever runs so high that they, too, regularly field queries from friends about whether they're excited for the Irish.

"We just say 'No, not too excited, really not a big fan any longer,' " says Lizzy's father, Tom Seeberg, who's remarkably indifferent to the team's success: "When tragedy rocks you to your core, all the little stuff is stripped away." And yes, sports fans, there are people who consider football the little stuff. Since Lizzy's death, Tom and his wife, Mary, have raised $280,000 in her memory - enough to open the "Lizzy House" for laypeople teaching for free in the Jesuit-run, inner-city Chicago Cristo Rey school where Lizzy volunteered.

Lizzy's aunt, Katie Garvey, who met her husband at ND, has come to believe that even if the facts of these cases were "blasted from every news source in the country, the average Notre Dame fan would still find a way to discount it." Part of her is actually kind of glad for them, she says, that "they don't have the burden of knowing," even if "their resistance to knowing is absolutely remarkable."

In South Bend, naturally, knowing is particularly burdensome: "I've watched almost every game this season and there's not a single time that I don't feel extreme anger when I see 1/8the accused 3/8 on the field," says Saint Mary's junior Kaliegh Fields, who went with Lizzy to the police station. "Once I start thinking about the people who put the school's success in a sport over the life of a young woman, I can't help but feel disgust.

"Everyone's always saying how God's on Notre Dame's side," she went on. "And I think, 'How could he be?' "

 * * *

Melinda Henneberger writes about politics for the Washington Post.

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