The hoax surrounding Notre Dame linebacker and Heisman Trophy finalist Manti Te’o’s nonexistent girlfriend has dominated headlines this past week. The story, originally broken by Gawker Media’s sports blog Deadspin, can be seen as a case study in the decreasing quality of sports journalism. Moreover, in the wake of being drubbed 42-14 by Alabama in the BCS National Championship game, many observers point out that one of the nation’s most notable Catholic institutions is having a rough January.
We believe, however, the Te’o hoax is a microcosm of a much larger issue in college athletics culture. Lost in the shuffle of a disappointing championship game and a made-up girlfriend is the rough time Notre Dame is having upholding its responsibilities as a Catholic university committed to the values of compassion, justice and love.
While a teary-eyed Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick was quick to call a press conference the night the Te’o story broke, no one at the university shared the same sense of urgency when a real person was involved in a much more serious and deadly scenario.
On Aug. 31, 2010, Lizzy Seeberg, a freshman at nearby Saint Mary’s College, was allegedly sexually assaulted by an unnamed Notre Dame football player. Despite Seeberg taking all the recommended steps to go about documenting an assault, including reporting the assault to police the following day, investigators did not act swiftly, leaving her to receive threatening texts from another Notre Dame football player, including one that read “Messing with Notre Dame football is a bad idea.” Seeberg committed suicide 10 days later.
Notre Dame president Rev. John I. Jenkins refused to meet with Seeberg’s parents because he felt he needed to remain “impartial” in case he became an arbiter in a potential hearing on the case. Investigators did not interview the football player in question until five days after her death, eventually finding him “not responsible,” an especially interesting response in light of the university’s rush to hire private investigators for Te’o as soon as they could. Swarbrick did not cry on national TV for Seeberg as he did for Te’o, and Notre Dame administrators did not stop heaven and earth for a real woman’s death, as they did for a fabricated woman’s.
We do not mean to suggest that Marquette is somehow ethically superior to Notre Dame as a Catholic school. In fact, this editorial is based on the hope that Marquette and its rich basketball culture do not travel down the same morally questionable road as our Big East rival.
A 2010 sexual assault case involving student athletes gave our university its own share of negative publicity, which included a detailed story by the Chicago Tribune and an investigation into Marquette by the U.S. Department of Education.
We hope Notre Dame’s lack of judgment can teach Marquette something about how to handle situations in which athletes in high-profile sports violate university rules or even the law. It is too easy for universities with a celebrated athletics culture to place more importance on the reputation of these sports programs than doing the right and fair thing. Just as Notre Dame loves its football, Marquette loves its basketball, but neither sport is more important than upholding moral commitments as a Catholic institution.
We hope Marquette always remembers, no matter how successful its athletics are, that the school is dedicated to “serving God by serving our students and contributing to the advancement of knowledge.” If Marquette, Notre Dame or any other Catholic school loses sight of what is right and makes protecting athletes and their occasionally misguided behavior a top priority, they risk making that Catholic identity appear just as fake as a nonexistent girlfriend.