I’ve watched Notre Dame football my whole life. My dad went there, my mom’s dad went there. We watched all the games when I was growing up. I went to the stadium once – finally – when I was 20 years old, and had an amazing time. While I’m not as much of a football fan as I was as a kid, it’s still emotionally vibrant for me to see the team achieve glory, as they did last year with an undefeated regular season and a trip to the championship game.
Unfortunately, that’s not true anymore.
Back in January, when everyone was preparing for Alabama to crush the Irish in the national championship, I first learned the story of Lizzy Seeberg. Lizzy was a student at St. Mary’s College, a women’s school that has a longstanding “brother-sister” relationship with Notre Dame. The campuses are across the street from each other in South Bend, Indiana. My mom went to St. Mary’s, and that’s where my parents met.
If you don’t know the story of Lizzy Seeberg, you really need to read the full account by Melinda Henneberger in the National Catholic Reporter. On September 1, 2010, Lizzy reported to campus police that she had been sexually assaulted by a member of the ND football team the previous night. Ten days later, after having received intimidating text messages from her attacker’s friends, and with the authorities not having even bothered to interview the accused, she killed herself.
The player’s identity was never revealed. With his accuser dead, there was no way to charge him with a crime. He was on the field in the championship game last January, and it’s possible he’s still on the team today.
Henneberger published a shorter version of Lizzy’s story in the Washington Post in the lead-up to the game last year, in which she also describes the case of another woman who was raped by an ND football player. The university’s handling of both cases makes it clear how important they consider the safety and wellbeing of women on campus, as compared to the almighty pigskin dollar.
After Lizzy died, the university did conduct an investigation. The accused player was cleared of any wrongdoing and never missed so much as a practice, but Notre Dame’s president, Rev. John Jenkins, refused to meet with Lizzy’s family on the advice of counsel, and the school stonewalled journalists. University officials, to their everlasting shame, began a whisper campaign blaming Lizzy for what happened.
“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.’”
This kind of thing is not just a Notre Dame problem – it’s not even just a college problem; it’s a culture problem. As I’ve learned from listening to Citizen Radio and other sources, rape culture – where rape, sexual assault and harassment are condoned because “she was asking for it” or “she was drinking” or “she was all over the boy” is a potent and destructive force in our society. Essentially, rape culture boils down to simple, ignorant victim-blaming. When rape culture combines with football culture, men become infallible golden heroes while the women they abuse are considered deserving of subhuman treatment on account of their own behavior.
We’ve seen a few striking examples in the last year. The infamous case of Steubenville, Ohio, involved a completely inebriated high school girl being carried from party to party like a rag doll, by a bunch of football bros who violated her repeatedly while other kids posting videos and photos of it online. These guys were going to get away with it because the town authorities cared more about football than about girls’ human rights. Fortunately, a strong case of online activism prevented that tragic outcome, and two boys did face some punishment. But even then the media often focused on how terrible it was that these promising young men had their lives ruined by the incident. Well, uh, maybe they shouldn’t have raped anyone?
A similar situation happened in Marysville, Maryland, to a young girl named Daisy Coleman, who has received no justice to date. Her story is equally horrific, and she nearly died, but now she is speaking out and helping to fight rape culture.
The norm – insane as it is – seems to be that everyone blames the women, tries to forget about it, and goes back to cheering for the football team. We learn it in high school, and continue doing it our whole lives. Any victim who speaks up gets further harassed, intimidated, and publicly shamed by the whole group – shouted down, in effect.
This is wrong, and awful, and the only way it will change is for more of us to step up and say it’s wrong and awful and it needs to stop.
Don’t victim-blame. Don’t ask what a girl was wearing when she was raped. Don’t put your bullshit PR and football dollars ahead of truth and justice and expect us to take it in stride.
As Lizzy’s father, Tom Seeberg, put it: “When tragedy rocks you to your core, all the little stuff is stripped away.”