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The Sins Of Notre Dame, And Our Obsession With Football Teams That Win ‘The Right Way’

On August 31, 2010, Lizzy Seeberg, a 19-year-old freshman at St. Mary’s College in South Bend, Indiana, was allegedly sexually assaulted in the room of a football player at the school’s sister college, Notre Dame. On September 10, Lizzy Seeberg committed suicide.

Tonight, Notre Dame will take the field in the BCS National Championship game hoping to win its first national title since 1998. Old Notre Dame’s return to the top of college football has been the story of the season, and we’re sure to hear commentators waxing poetic about how football means so much to Notre Dame and how Notre Dame means so much to football. Head coach Brian Kelly and Rev. John Jenkins, the school’s chancellor, will be hailed for returning the Fighting Irish to the promised land, and for doing so “the right way.” This university has long lived off its mystique, off the idea that it is a more moral place because it could win even more football games if only it would compromise its academic values.

But as was the case at Penn State, site of the most damning scandal in the history of college football, the definition of “right way” falls short when it comes to sexual misconduct. And so tonight, we won’t hear the story of Lizzy Seeberg, the girl who was allegedly victimized by an athlete who was doing things the “right way” on the field and in the classroom and ignored by a program that was doing things the “right way” in its balance of athletics and academics. But when Seeberg’s life was ruined, our deference to and reverence for the “right way” mentality never wavered.

Seeberg’s story hasn’t been ignored by the national media; in fact, Notre Dame’s appearance in the title game has brought it back to life, if begrudgingly so. Still, the focus of the sports media has remained largely on Notre Dame’s improbable rise to back to the top of college football decades after its heightened academic standards supposedly rendered it irrelevant. Editorials and columns have praised Notre Dame for combining academics and athletics in a way few, if any, other schools do. The school stands as a beacon of hope that football programs can “do things the right way” and still win games.

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You’d think we’d have learned what our reverence for and deference to supposed “right way” institutions has wrought. Penn State under Joe Paterno was an institution that won the right way, right up until it was revealed that the school went to impossible lengths to cover up the molestation of a dozen children by former coach Jerry Sandusky. From South Bend to State College to Steubenville, misplaced priorities and win-at-all-costs mentalities have left women and children vulnerable to sexual assault and, worse, have made victims feel that reporting those assaults will lead not to justice but to character assassination and harassment. But misplaced priorities aren’t only to blame. So to is blind reverence and deference to the “right way” mentality, the idea that certain institutions are above it all. As Seeberg’s case points out, focusing solely on the balance of academics and athletics is an incredibly shallow view of what constitutes the “right way” to build a winning football program at a top-tier academic institution.

Seeberg reported her assault to Notre Dame police on September 6, 2010. Four days later, she committed suicide, and what followed looked at worst like a cover-up and at best like an institution didn’t want to discover that it might have a sexual predator on its football team.

Police did not interview the accused player for more than two weeks after Seeberg’s report. By that time, she was dead, and without a living victim, there was virtually no way to bring charges. Even before her death, Seeberg was hounded by friends of the player and others at Notre Dame who told her not to challenge the school’s vaunted football program. “Don’t do anything you’d regret,” said a text message Seeberg received from a friend of the player the next day. “Messing with Notre Dame football is a bad idea.” Reporting the assault, her therapist told National Catholic Reporter’s Melinda Henneberger, made Seeberg feel like a “traitor to the school she’d grown up revering.”

After her death, Notre Dame turned its fire on her, citing her depression and minor discrepancies in her accounts of the report as reasons her allegations shouldn’t be trusted. When it was all over, Jenkins, the chancellor, insisted that the investigation had been handled properly, even though he admitted that he intentionally kept himself ignorant of the details. And Lizzy Seeberg wasn’t the only one.

By revering schools like Notre Dame and its “right way” approach, we miss the lengths they will travel not just to protect wins on the football field but to maintain the image they have gained. Those images, after all, are often worth millions of dollars, both on the football field and in the classroom. So tonight, we’ll hear plenty of talk about Notre Dame’s unique place in college football, how it balances academics and athletics, how it has overcome the odds to remain relevant in a world where it shouldn’t be so. What we won’t hear is how Notre Dame is far less unique in its desire to preserve its image and its football program at all costs, even if those costs include the life of a young woman who should be alive today. Worse yet, we’ll go on believing in the myth of Notre Dame, a tall tale that isn’t specific to one institution in South Bend but to plenty of others as well.

We helped build the myths of the “right way” program. It’s well past time we shattered them.