EDINBURG, February 10 - News media intensely covered the woes of Notre Dame University linebacker, and Heisman runner up Manti Te’o.
After his grandmother died, Te’o’s girlfriend tragically died of cancer. Except, she never existed. Te’o was the “victim” of a friend’s “cruel hoax” who created a fake woman Te’o fell in love with, only to “see” her die just as his Heisman hype campaign was shifting into gear.
We can believe Te’o’s story about how he never actually met the woman he previously had talked of having spent time with, whose parents talked about him having been with when he was home in Hawaii. Or, we might conclude Te’o and his friend conjured up the fake girlfriend and subsequent fake death to help advance his quest for the Heisman by generating a sympathy vote.
Yes, the national press was atwitter, interviewing everyone even remotely associated with Te’o, his imaginary girlfriend, or the friend Te’o now blames. Notre Dame rushed to Te’o’s defense, hiring a private investigator, conducting its own investigation, with multiple university officials giving multiple press statements and interviews - all attesting to Te’o’s character, standing up for him, asserting he was the victim.
Fine, but what about Lizzy Seeberg? Where was the national press? Where were Notre Dame University officials? Did they hire a private investigator? Where were their press releases and interviews?
Or, perhaps you have not heard of Lizzy Seeberg?
She was a Freshman at St. Mary’s College, which, literally, is across the street from the University of Notre Dame. In August, 2010, Lizzy reported being raped by a Notre Dame football player. The accusation made little more than a ripple in the news. But she quickly was attacked, with a friend of the accused rapist sending her texts saying, “Don’t do anything you would regret” and “Messing with Notre Dame football is a bad idea.”
Bad idea indeed.
By most accounts, her accusation was not taken seriously by anyone, driving her into despair. Ten days later, Lizzy Seeberg committed suicide. As far as Notre Dame was concerned, case closed. Although, that is being too kind to Notre Dame.
As questions were raised, Notre Dame and its apologists exercised callous indifference toward Lizzy and her family. Notre Dame is a gloried educational institution with a sordid history when it comes to taking accusations of rape by its athletes seriously - or, more accurately, not taking accusations seriously. Football coach Brian Kelly, widely treated in the press as an honorable man, “honorably” treated questions about Lizzy’s suicide as a joke, and asked reporters how the (itl)Chicago Tribune(itl) could afford to commit so many resources to Lizzy’s allegation and subsequent suicide.
It is not that the national press did not cover Lizzy’s case. Articles appeared in the (itl)Chicago Tribune(itl), (itl)Washington Post(itl), on CBS News, NPR, among others. However, unlike Te’o’s “tragedy,” coverage of Lizzy’s case basically was “here one day, gone the next.” For the most part, as at Notre Dame, there was something of a conspiracy of silence in the press.
At the time of Lizzy’s suicide, the accused player still had not been interviewed by university police, and was not interviewed for another five days - over two weeks after the alleged rape. He reportedly played in the NCAA championship game against Alabama.
In February, 2011, a Resident Assistant (RA) took a woman to the hospital who said she had been raped by another Notre Dame football player. After the woman was treated and released, the RA took her to the RA’s home. As the RA’s mother made breakfast, the RA’s father read texts streaming into the woman’s phone warning her not to report the rape.
News travels fast at Notre Dame.
The woman had not filed a police report, only called an emergency line, was taken to the hospital by an RA, then to the RA’s home. Yet, word was out; and threats poured in. Knowing what happened to Lizzy, she refrained from filing rape charges. That player, who has a prior history of misconduct, also reportedly played in the national championship game.
Were either of these women actually raped? We don’t know, and likely never will know. We know a process of character assassination quickly was implemented against Lizzy. We also know Notre Dame, its alumni, and supporters worked to keep the incident quiet. The national press, especially the sports press, was complicit in those efforts.
We have to ask, if Lizzy was not raped and her accusations were false, why would she kill herself when she had no history of suicidal ideation? Was she so overcome by remorse for having made a false accusation? That is what apologists for Notre Dame, for the football player, and those who generally want to believe it is rare for a woman to be raped - for there to be a “legitimate rape” (former Republican Congressman from Missouri, Todd Akin) - would have us believe. But how believable is that?
Could there have been some miscommunication between Lizzy and the football player? Did he think the sex was consensual while she thought it was rape? “Miscommunication” frequently is used as an argument to excuse rapists. A woman would commit suicide over a “miscommunication”? How probable is that?
Regarding the second purported rape, if the woman was raped, why wouldn’t she report it? Why would she allow the character assassination of Lizzy to prevent her from reporting her rape? Do we really want to believe, already having received numerous threats, she had no reason to think she would not be the subject of precisely the same kind of character assassination? Having watched Notre Dame officials participate in the denigration of Lizzy and work to cover up her allegations, did she have any reason to believe she would be taken seriously?
While these instances should be huge black eyes for Notre Dame, and parents should question whether to send their daughters to either Notre Dame or St. Mary’s, we need to realize the problem of rape on our university campuses is far from unique to Notre Dame. The problem of rape in our society is far from unique to our colleges and universities.
Nor is this merely a problem of misplaced and perverted priorities by the press, where rape and suicide are given little more than passing mention while the press falls all over itself to present in repeated and endless detail the imaginary “death” of an imaginary girlfriend.
Rape is a societal problem. Yet we are reluctant to recognize it and address it as such.
Samuel Freeman is a political science professor based in the Rio Grande Valley. His “Left is Right” columns appear regularly in the Guardian.