Football and Failed Family

The following column was published in The Observer on Wednesday, January 30, 2013.

For Christmas, I received a framed Sports Illustrated cover. The top reads, “The Notre Dame Miracle.” The story discusses the “Modern Irish,” and Tim Layden opens his piece by writing, “The echoes have been awoken, the thunder shaken down, and the new Notre Dame is marching onward to the national championship game—and downward from the moral high ground it has claimed for a century.”

The article chronicles recent changes to Notre Dame’s football program. It suggests that moral standards for Notre Dame athletes have dramatically decreased and that our athletes are becoming less a part of Notre Dame’s student body. Yet, comments by one “Weis-era employee” illustrate some irony. He told Layden, “[I] think the campus environment softens a kid. Then you’ve got to get him back over to the facility and unsoften him.’” So at the behest of coach Brian Kelly, our players got facilities with their own training table, pool, Ping-Pong tables, an Xbox 360 and other video games. Football players now have more perks and fewer reasons to stay in the “softening” campus environment.

This employee seems to criticize the seriousness of this environment. Being a world-class athlete requires a certain commitment to excellence, and he suggests the campus environment is not conducive for this excellence.  After living in the dorms, I have found these criticisms are not entirely unfounded. When freshman dorm parties down the hall result in alcohol poisoning three weekends in a row, one must wonder what kind of environment these communities are seeking to create.

In a certain respect, our athletes are worthy of great admiration. I have met few Notre Dame students whose commitment to their studies matches our athletes’ commitment to their teams. Athletes are called upon to work their hardest every day in practice and in competition, but few students do the same in their primary commitments as members of the University. It is easy to imagine a student who is lazy in his or her classes. It is difficult to imagine a football player who is lazy on the field.

This, however, is not the entire story. Layden writes, “The current generation of Notre Dame football will be forever connected … to the lives of Declan Sullivan and Lizzy Seeberg, both of whom died during Brian Kelly’s first season.” My Notre Dame experience will also be forever connected to these deaths, particularly the death of Lizzy, who accused one Notre Dame football player of assaulting her and, after little happened but threats from the player’s friend, ten days later committed suicide.

In a Washington Post article, Notre Dame alumna Melinda Henneberger notes that this player was actively recruited and publicly praised by our current coach both before and after the incident. She questions why he was recruited at all, considering “he was suspended during his senior year in high school for throwing a desk at a teacher who’d taken away his cell phone.”

In a different article, Henneberger notes another incident last year: “A resident assistant in a Notre Dame dorm drove a freshman to the hospital for a rape exam … ‘She [the freshman] said she’d been raped by a member of the football team at a party off campus,’ the R.A. [said]… The R.A.’s parents, who met the young woman that same night, when their daughter brought her to their home after leaving the hospital … 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 R.A.’s father [said].” They succeeded. She never filed a complaint.

At the end of his career, Charlie Weis named Residence Life “the biggest problem on Notre Dame’s campus.” Now, with recent restructuring and turned heads, it seems our football program has won against ResLife, and others, including at least two young women and their families, have lost. While, according to our University president, “we did our best to get to the truth” of a girl who never existed, the events leading up to the death of Lizzy Seeberg still remain unclear. Lizzy’s family, which includes 13 Notre Dame and St. Mary’s alumni, now feels betrayed by the school they had always loved. Perhaps the “Notre Dame family” only goes so far as the football team.

Christopher Damian is a senior studying philosophy. He can be contacted at
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

The following paragraph was submitted with the column as the final paragraph but removed by the editors:

The Sports Illustrated cover now hangs on my wall. I will always keep it. For me, “the Notre Dame Miracle” will always be tied to our program’s lost integrity. We now have neither a national championship nor the “moral high ground” we “have claimed for a century.” This cover will remind me of the call to excellence and of the dangers of idolizing it.

More sources on this story:

December 17, 2010: Lizzy Seeberg’s Family Feels Rejected by Notre Dame as Football Star is Not Charged, by Melinda Henneberger, Politics Daily.

December 27, 2010: Notre Dame’s Fr. Jenkins Pins Delays in Lizzy Seeberg Case on ‘Discrepancies’by Melinda Henneberger, Politics Daily 

November 22, 2010: Answers in short supply from Notre Dame in alleged attack: Family deserves more than school has provided so far, by David Haugh, The Chicago Tribune.

November 25, 2010: Notre Dame’s Punt in the Probe of Lizzy Seeberg’s Sad Death, by Melinda Henneberger, Politics Daily.

January 21, 2011: Jenkins: Seeberg Investigation had “integrity’, by Laura McCrystal, UWire.

January 28, 2011: The Seeberg Timeline day by day, by Gabby Speach, The Irish Rover.

March 2, 2011: Who’s the Victim?, by Gabby Speach, The Irish Rover.

October 21, 2011: Changes in the university’s sexual misconduct policy leave room for debate, by Helena Birdsell, The Irish Rover.

December 7, 2011: Sexual assault policy encourages reporting, by Megan Doyle, The Observer.

March 26, 2012: Reported sexual assault at Notre Dame campus leaves more questions than answers, by Melinda Henneberger, The National Catholic Reporter.

August 23, 2012: Title IX streamlined at ND, by Megan Doyle, The Observer.

November 26, 2012: Modern Irish, by Tim Layden, Sports Illustrated.

December 4, 2012: Why I won’t be cheering for old Notre Dame, by Melinda Henneberger, The Washington Post.

January 17, 2013: Notre Dame’s Real Dead Woman, by Irin Carmon, Salon.

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