Only one game away from completing an undefeated season as national champions, with a linebacker in contention to win the Heisman Trophy, Notre Dame fans have plenty of reasons to cheer.
This is not one of them, according to Washington Post political reporter Melinda Henneberger and an alumna of the Indiana Catholic university.
Nineteen-year-old Lizzy Seeberg, a freshman at neighboring St. Mary’s College committed suicide in September 2010. It was 10 days after she alleged being the victim of sexual assault by a Notre Dame football player who she said fondled her breasts and engaged in other unwanted sexual touching. While no one was ever charged in the case, Henneberger writes that campus police waited 15 days after Seeberg’s complaint--five days after her death--to interview the accused.
"The local prosecutor examined all of the facts in this case at length and said charges were not warranted,” the university said in a statement.
In her column, "Why I won't be cheering for old Notre Dame," Henneberger outlines another Notre Dame case where a young woman said that she was raped by a Notre Dame football player at an off-campus party. The woman never filed charges. Henneberger reported that a friend who drove her to the hospital afterwards said the woman decided not to file a complaint because of what happened to Seeberg.
“There is very much an institutional problem at Notre Dame,” Henneberger said on Hardball Thursday. “Far worse to me than these horrible attacks, which unfortunately do happen in every institution on every campus in the country, is the way the men who run Notre Dame responded to the report, responded to try to cover up what happened, and responded in a very ugly whisper campaign against this poor girl.”
Henneberger says the whisper campaign amounted to characterizing Seeberg as depressed and unstable. Investigators also ruled that Seeberg's account was untrue because "conflicts exist among the witnesses" accounts," which Henneberger details as the statement that the assailant stopped the attack when he received a call contradicted phone records. In fact, the football player placed a call, but did not receive one.
Henneberger writes that what really surprises her is the number of friends who assume she will support her alma mater anyway, despite her belief that two players on the team may have committed serious criminal acts.
“How many predators would have to be on the team before it would make you feel like not cheering?” said Henneberger.
In a statement to Hardball, a Notre Dame spokesman responded to the delay in interviewing the accused football player: “We acknowledge that the police could have acted a bit more quickly after taking [Seeberg’s] statements, but we also believe it was more important to be thorough than fast.”
“I’ve talked to a number of people who work with sexual assaults, with police departments all over the country,” said Henneberger. “You wouldn’t find a one that will say it’s better to wait and give the accused maximum time to get their stories straight.”
But perhaps just as troubling as the possible negligence on part of the school are the loyal fans for whom football is so high a priority, they are willing to excuse a couple of potential criminals and cheer anyway. Henneberger's criticism lands in a year in which the whole country was riveted by the unraveling of a case of 15 years of sexual abuse of young boys by former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky. The case also led to a $60-million fine against the school's legendary football institution, as well as a four-year football postseason ban and a stripping of its title wins.
“What upsets me is when my fellow alums say there are bad apples on every team. That may well be true, I don’t dispute that," said Henneberger. "But when you’re trading on the moral superiority of your institution and running a whisper campaign smearing a dead 19-year-old, that’s a problem.”