The Ones Who Don’t Exist

I didn’t want to write about the Manti Te’o scandal.

I really didn’t.

For a number of reasons, really. Mainly, sports writing is not exactly in my wheelhouse – and whatever else this story is about, it starts with sports. Furthermore, I tend to stick to political and cultural subjects here, especially when those subjects come up against pernicious use of language, bad arguments, and other blatant falsehoods. There are blatant falsehoods here, but nothing that impacts us in a culture-wide kind of way.

Secretly, however – way in the back of my mind – I didn’t want to write about Te’o because it would mean writing about Notre Dame, my alma mater.

Then I read this. In this article, Amanda Marcotte asks an important question: why does Te’o’s fake girlfriend merit so much attention? Why isĀ this, of all things, the scandal that gets us looking at Notre Dame, when there’s a much more insidious scandal working just behind the scenes?

It got me thinking. Then it made me angry.

Lizzy Seeburg’s suicide – a suicide that took place after a botched and reluctant investigation, because of a sexual assault allegation that the Notre Dame administration wanted to just go away – is not unique. Not even close.

Notre Dame is a place unlike any other. In many ways, this is a fantastic thing – the spirit of the student body, the dedication of the professors, and the engagement of the alumni are all unique, powerful, and to be commended. But there are dark sides to this cultural uniqueness as well.

The sexual politics of the campus are often strained. You can be expelled for visiting opposite-sex dorms after hours, and that rule is fairly regularly enforced. Female dorms tend to be stricter and more tightly regulated, while male dorms foster something of a ‘boys will be boys’ atmosphere.

And football – that storied name – brings in much of the money that makes this one-of-a-kind place possible.

These two facts, seemingly unrelated, foster exactly the sort of situation that led to Seeburg’s death. Football is the university’s cash cow, and so football players are protected from many of the consequences of their actions. Despite actions on campus like the development of the Loyal Daughters and Sons awareness campaign, sexual assaults allegations that are not only uninvestigated but often actively impeded are fairly common.

During my time there, I remember one incident in particular, which took place at Notre Dame’s sister school, St. Mary’s College. After reporting a sexual assault through campus health services, evidence of the crime was lost and police forces failed to follow up on the student’s claims. I personally knew two girls who were assaulted and refused to report the crime, for fear that they would be ostracized or wouldn’t be taken seriously.

Seeburg’s death was tragic, but it should not be seen as an isolated incident. Te’o’s hoax is weird, certainly, but the response to it shows that Notre Dame’s administration knows exactly on which side its bread is buttered. People outside the school care about the football program.

It’s up to the administration to provide an advocate for those who aren’t in the football program. When young women – most commonly those assaulted by football players – are denied the care needed to get justice, closure, and healing, then who’s to say that they have any more consequence than Te’o’s invented lover?

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