By Dave Zirin
It’s past time that the Notre Dame football squad, the most storied team in collegiate history, had its program suspended. In a season of heartbreak and horror under new coach Brian Kelly, the Fighting Irish have more than earned what's known as the NCAA’s dreaded "death penalty." Historically, teams have receoved "the death penalty" for illegal recruiting or paying players under the table. The cynics – or perhaps the realists – will point out that most of the programs on the college football map are dirtier than a Vegas city council meeting. Why single out Notre Dame? Simply put, those running the football program in South Bend are guilty of something worse than the payoffs and kickbacks that pepper many of the top so-called amateur teams.
First there was the death of 20-year-old team videographer Declan Sullivan in October. Amidst a hurricane, Sullivan was ordered onto a 50-foot high “scissor lift” to videotape practice. Coach Kelly was apparently still angry that the previous day’s practice had to be conducted inside, and practice even in inclement weather, demands to be recorded. After the tower blew over, killing Sullivan, practice continued another 25 minutes. Sullivan’s death wasn’t just an accident. It was utter negligence.
As school President, the Reverend John Jenkins correctly said in an email to students, “Declan Sullivan was entrusted to our care and we failed to keep him safe."
But Reverend Jenkins also defended the man in charge saying, “Coach Kelly was hired not only because of his football expertise, but because we believed his character and values accord with the highest standards of Notre Dame. All we have seen since he came to Notre Dame, and everything we have learned in our investigation to date, have confirmed that belief.”
The Sullivan story was awful enough. Now there is the emerging truth behind the September 10th suicide of first year student Elizabeth Seeberg. Seeberg overdosed on anti-depressants ten days after telling friends and campus police that a University of Notre Dame football player had sexually assaulted her.
After the alleged attack on August 31st, Seeberg wrote an account of what took place, was treated at a local hospital, and gave DNA samples to the authorities. There is no evidence that the case was taken seriously and the accused player who has been neither charged nor cleared, remained on the team. Seeberg, according to reports, became fearful in the days following her statement to police that she would be outed as someone hurting the team. She made a point of wearing her Fighting Irish gear around campus and getting fake ND tattoos on her face, all the better to blend in. It all proved to be too much for her and the 19 year old who had dreams of becoming a nurse, took her own life. She was found in her dorm room by rape crisis coordinators alarmed that she’d missed her latest session.
It’s a horrible story that shines light on something that occurs on far too many campuses, where sexual assault is part of the culture of entitlement conjoined with big time men's college athletics. But even worse was the response by the supposed adults in charge. Less than a month after the death of Declan Sullivan, Coach Brian Kelly, the guy with all that "character" remember, was asked by reporters about Seeberg’s suicide. Coach Kelly repeatedly deflected the question. When the fourth reporter from the Tribune company asked Coach Kelly, he smirked, ‘"I didn't know you guys could afford all those guys," referencing the financial foibles at the paper.
This is the man who, according to Rev. Jenkins, represents the “highest values” of Notre Dame. He’s the sort of man who brings his team out to practice in a hurricane and doesn't pause when a 50-foot tower falls to the ground. He’s the sort of man who turns his back on a sexual assault involving one of his players and can’t bring himself to show empathy for a 19 year old woman’s suicide. This is a program that has officially gone off the rails and it clearly goes well beyond Coach Kelly. If these are the “highest values” of Notre Dame and if the NCAA gave a damn about the lives of the young people in their charge, they would take this program of Rockne, Hornung, and Montana, and shut it down. If the NCAA doesn’t have the guts to do it, Rev. Jenkins should do it for them: take a year off, reassess your mission, and try to understand why life on that campus has become so terribly cheap.
Dave Zirin is the author of “Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games we Love” (Scribner) Receive his column every week by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Contact him at email@example.com.