Notre Dame Football Players Rape Cover-up – What’s in the News and What Isn’t

by Diana Zuckerman

Updated January 9, 2013

Cross-posted from Fem2.0 with permission.

Thanks to extensive media coverage, almost everyone in the country knows that Notre Dame lost their championship football game to Alabama. But despite last year’s coverage on CBSMSNBC and the Washington Post, few Americans are aware of Notre Dame’s cover-up of rapes by Notre Dame football players. Why is the football team’s championship game so newsworthy, and their rape cover-up so, well, successfully covered up?

During last year’s trial of Jerry Sandusky, football fans across the country were horrified to learn about the rapes of dozens of young boys that would not have occurred if it hadn’t been for the cover-up by the Penn State football leadership and highest level administrators. Penn State’s football team, and therefore the college, was punished for the cover-up – including the team members who were completely innocent of the crimes. But those victims were young boys. Apparently, the same outrage doesn’t apply when the victims are young women.

Melinda Hennenberg, a Notre Dame alumna, is one of the few main stream journalists who has written about this travesty, in an article published in the Washington Post last month:

Of the two reported rapes, one of the victims is dead and the other, according to Hennenberg, “decided to keep her mouth shut at least in part because she’d seen what happened to the first woman. Neither player has ever even been named, and won’t be here, either, since neither was charged with a crime.”As luck would have it, federal investigators were on the Notre Dame campus to investigate how the college handles rape reports when the second rape occurred. Hennenberg points out that:

“with its Title IX funding on the line, the university marked the 40th anniversary of coeducation in 2012 by changing the way it investigates sexual assault for the second time in two years.”

Almost 20 years ago, I spoke with government officials about the widespread cover-up of rapes on college campuses. I was sure that if colleges accurately reported rapes, it would greatly influence decisions that college women and their families made about where to attend college. And, similarly, if college campuses were forced to accurately report rapes, they would do a much better job of preventing them.

But, despite some progress, many colleges have concluded that cover-ups are the best way to protect themselves. Notre Dame is the poster child for that strategy, and how successful it can be.

Here’s what Hennenberg eloquently reported in the Washington Post after investigating the rapes for several months.

“Two years ago, Lizzy Seeberg, a 19-year-old freshman at Saint Mary’s College, across the street from Notre Dame, committed suicide after accusing an ND football player of sexually assaulting her. The friend Lizzy told immediately afterward said she was crying so hard she was having trouble breathing.

Yet after Lizzy went to the police, a friend of the player’s sent her a series of texts that frightened her as much as anything that had happened in the player’s dorm room. “Don’t do anything you would regret,” one of them said. “Messing with Notre Dame football is a bad idea.”

Lizzy Seeberg at a tailgate party with family and friends, September 2010. (Courtesy of the Seeberg family)

At the time of her death, 10 days after reporting the attack to campus police, who have jurisdiction for even the most serious crimes on school property, investigators still had not interviewed the accused. It took them five more days after she died to get around to that, though they investigated Lizzy herself quite thoroughly, even debriefing a former roommate at another school with whom she’d clashed.

Six months later — after the story had become national news — Notre Dame did convene a closed-door disciplinary hearing. The player testified that until he actually met with police, he hadn’t even known why they wanted to speak to him — though his buddy who’d warned Lizzy not to mess with Notre Dame football had spoken to investigators 13 days earlier. He was found “not responsible,” and never sat out a game.

A few months later, a resident assistant in a Notre Dame dorm drove a freshman to the hospital for a rape exam after receiving an S.O.S. call. “She said she’d been raped by a member of the football team at a party off campus,” the R.A. told me. I also spoke to 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. They 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 told me. And did; no criminal complaint was ever filed.

…..Among those being congratulated for our return to gridiron glory is ND’s president, Rev. John Jenkins, who refused to meet with the Seeberg family on advice of counsel, and other school officials who’ve whispered misleadingly in many ears, mine included, in an attempt to protect the school’s brand by smearing a dead 19-year-old…. At first, officials said privacy laws prevented them from responding. But after some criticism, Jenkins told the South Bend Tribune he’d intentionally kept himself free of any in-depth knowledge of the case, yet was sure it had been handled appropriately.”

On January 7, 2013, the day of Notre Dame’s championship game, Dave Zirin, a writer for Sports Illustrated, wrote an excellent article about this travesty of justice in The Nation.  Zirin points out “the sports media have chosen not to discuss the fact that this football team has two players on its roster suspected of sexual assault and rape; two players whose crimes have been ignored; two players whose accusers felt harassed and intimidated; two players whose presence on the field Monday night should be seen as a national disgrace.”

What’s Notre Dame’s official position on rape?  Well, they do offer a self-defense class for their own women students:  What will it take to convince the Notre Dame leadership and their alumnae that isn’t enough?

In the last few weeks, the deadly rape of a college student on a moving bus in India has finally forced that country to acknowledge that raping women is a terrible crime that needs to be taken seriously by police, the public, and the media.

And, in recent days, the rape of a Steubenville, H.S. student by members of that school’s football team has also captured national attention on NPR and elsewhere, but only because some of the boys joked about it on YouTube.

Notre Dame’s championship football game was an was an opportunity for the media to bring long-overdue attention to the cover-up on that campus, and across the country. That didn’t happen. Notre Dame lost the game, and only time will tell if the “Fighting Irish” will lose their championship effort to cover-up the very credible accusations of rape by their football players.

Photo Credits: freeflight046 via the Creative Commons License

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