Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick stepped away from the microphone too overcome with emotion to speak. When he raised his head he said, “That the single most trusting human being I’ve ever met will never be able to trust in the same way again in his life. That’s an incredible tragedy.”
Taken on it’s own the story of Manti Ta’o's fake girlfriend and the deception Swarbrick claims Ta’o endured would be a terrible tragedy–almost as tragic as the story of her death and the college football fan base she inspired. However, when framed in the light of a number of events at Notre Dame over the past few years, just how much can we trust Swarbrick or for that much anything that comes out of the Notre Dame football program?
In the past two years the Notre Dame football program has been connected with two student deaths. The first a tragic accident involving a student videographer who was killed when a lift from which he was filming toppled over in high winds.
According to a report in the Chicago Tribune, Notre Dame was anything but helpful in the Indiana OSHA investigation which resulted in six safety violations related to the student’s death. Although Notre Dame Coach Brian Kelly claimed it was a “beautiful day” and that wind conditions remained normal until they were hit by a 60 mph gust, video and reports uncovered by IOSHA told a different story.
The university determined through their own investigation that “the accident was caused by a confluence of unrelated events and issues.” However, as the Tribune story points out, Notre Dame was anything but cooperative in the IOSHA investigation going so far as to edit practice video filmed on the day of the accident claiming, “highly proprietary, trade secret information related to the business of college sports” that they could not release. In other words, they felt that Coach Kelly’s latest sneak play was more important than an investigation into the safety of students in their employ.
The second tragedy as reported by Notre Dame alumn Melinda Hennenberger in her Washington Post Story, “Why I Won’t be Cheering for Old Notre Dame” is the death of St. Mary’s student Lizzy Seeberg who committed suicide after being sexually assaulted by a Notre Dame football player–a claim the university vehemently denies. Hennenberger reports that the intimidation aimed at Seeberg including texts messages which read “Don’t do anything you would regret” and “You don’t mess with Notre Dame football.” She goes on to tell of a second rape victim was so intimidated by threats from Notre Dame football players that she refused to file criminal charges.
Both of the accused are were on the roster for the BCS national championship game against Alabama.
In a story that rivals the abuse at Penn State, Hennenberger reporting in the National Catholic Reporter tells of sexual abuse and cover up that spans decades at Notre Dame. Her story includes a comment from a former Notre Dame administrator who referred to a rape victim in 1974 as a “a queen of the slums with a mattress tied to her back.”
And now we are expected to believe the story that Te’o is a hapless victim in an amazing case of deception. Even though the Deadspin article that broke the story outlines an ongoing series of contradictions by Te’o and quotes a source saying he is “80 percent sure” that Te’o was involved in the hoax, there is Swarbrick once again standing tall for the integrity of Ole’ Notre Dame.
Even though Swarbrick was made aware of the Te’o situation on December 26 and by December 27 had met with Te’o and realized that the girlfriend story was a hoax, he allowed the inspirational story of Te’o's perseverance in the face of overwhelming tragedy continue through the BCS National Championship game. It was a story that was told again in depth by CBS the morning of the BCS National Championship game and referred to again during the live broadcast of the game.
Instead of stopping the story a week earlier, Swarbrick allowed the story to perpetuate.
When asked during the press conference how they advised Te’o to respond if asked about his girlfriend Swarbrick said that they told Te’o, “We encouraged him to try to focus forward and focus on the game and not draw attention backward, if he could.”
Focus on the game because apparently at Notre Dame, “the game” takes priority above all else.
Te’o's statement only adds to the questioning of priorities as he ends his official statement saying, “I’m looking forward to putting this painful experience behind me as I focus on preparing for the NFL Draft.” (Granted, at this point what else is there left to do?)
Notre Dame is unlike any other college football program. Ever since Knute Rockney asked his players to “Win one for the Gipper” the storied football program has been built around tales of faith and inspiration. Like Penn State’s Joe Paterno, it is (was) a program that is supposed to rise above the others representing all that is great about college football. To many Notre Dame represents a romantic golden age in which school spirit and honor were the corner stone upon which college athletics were built.
And although I have become frustrated with Notre Dame in recent years, I appreciate what they represented. Enough so that I choose not to write about about the story of sexual assault when I first read the report in December. At some point though the bubble bursts. Like Penn State, it is time for Notre Dame to stop covering for the football team at all costs and focus on rebuilding a much damaged reputation.