Jerry Sandusky, AP Images / Lizzy Seeberg, courtesy of the Seeberg Family
Two storied college football programs. Two rape scandals. Only one national outcry. How do we begin to explain the exponentially different levels of attention paid to crimes of violence and power at Penn State and Notre Dame?
At Penn State, revered assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was raping young boys while being shielded by a conspiracy of silence of those in power at the football powerhouse. At Notre Dame, it’s not young boys being raped by an assistant coach. It’s women being threatened, assaulted, and raped by players on the school’s unbeaten football team. Yet sports media that are overwhelmingly male and ineffably giddy about Fighting Irish football’s return to prominence have enacted their own conspiracy of silence.
As unbeaten Notre Dame prepares to play in tonight’s national championship game against Alabama, 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.
The main reason this is taking place is because their accusers are not pressing charges. One cannot, because she is dead. Nineteen-year-old Lizzy Seeberg, a student at neighboring St. Mary’s College, took her own life after her claims of being assaulted in a dorm room were met with threats and indifference. The other accuser, despite description of a brutal rape, won’t file charges—“absolutely 100%”—because of what Seeberg experienced.
Lizzy Seeberg was a first semester freshman and from a family of Notre Dame graduates. After an evening when she socialized with members of the football team, Lizzy came forward with accusations of a sexual assault. After writing out a statement and submitting to medical attention, she received texts from another member of the team that read, “Don’t do anything you would regret” and “Messing with Notre Dame football is a bad idea.”
To show that she wouldn’t rock the boat, Lizzy was compelled by her peers to go to the next game, stencil the Notre Dame logos into her face and cheer her assaulter. As Melinda Henneberger, a Washington Post reporter and Notre Dame alum who has investigated the sexual assaults on campus extensively, wrote, “On Sept. 7, she wrote her therapist, ‘I can’t get out of this f*!#ing hole I’ve started to dig. I’m trying to go to sleep because I’m sick with a cold and need to get rest but I can’t stop thinking about taking all the pills I can find. I’m ready to check out because this sucks.’ She promised [her therapist] she would never follow through. But then, on Sept. 9, she had a panic attack during a mandatory freshman orientation on sexual assault.”
That panic attack preceded her suicide. If in life Lizzy Seeberg suffered at the hands of not only players on the team but the people in power who ignored her pleas, in death these forces have gone further and slandered her to a shocking degree. They have claimed Lizzy was a “troubled girl” who was “all over the boy”, as well as mentally unstable. As Henneberger wrote, “The damage to her memory since then is arguably more of a violation than anything she reported to police — and all the more shocking because it was not done thoughtlessly, by a kid in a moment he can’t take back, but on purpose, by the very adults who heavily market the moral leadership of a Catholic institution. Notre Dame’s mission statement could not be clearer: ‘The university is dedicated to the pursuit and sharing of truth for its own sake.’ But in this case, the university did just the opposite.”
School President Reverend John I. Jenkins has shown no public regard or concern for the fact that his school has become a place where women alumni warn prospective female students that rape has become a part of campus life. Football coach Brian Kelly, to his shame, treated questions about Lizzy’s suicide as a joke.
But this conspiracy of silence and slander is bigger than just the school. Deindustrialized South Bend, Indiana, is a company town, and the company is Notre Dame football. The football program in 2012 was valued by Forbes as the third “most valuable” in the country, behind far larger state universities in Texas and Michigan. This is just the formal economy. Informally, every hotel, every bar, every kid at the side of the road selling bottled water depends on Notre Dame football. Home games generate $10 million in local spending for a community of just 100,000 people. It is the beating economic heart of South Bend and women have become, in this sclerotic set up, the collateral damage.
But the cone of silence that surrounds a company college football town is not enough to understand why Penn State’s rape scandal was front-page news the second the Sandusky scandal went public and Notre Dame has been largely protected by the press. The only answer that makes sense is that raping women has become “normalized” in our culture, while raping little boys has not. The only answer that makes sense is that the rape of a young boy sets all sorts of alarms of horror in the minds of the very male sports media, while the rape of women does not. The only answer that makes sense is that it’s been internalized that while boys are helpless in the face of a predator, women are responsible for their assault. The accusers are the accused.
This is not just a Notre Dame issue. At too many universities, too many football players are schooled to see women as the spoils of being a campus god. But it’s also an issue beyond the commodification of women on a big football campus. It’s the fruit of a culture where politicians can write laws that aim to define the difference between “rape” and “forcible rape” and candidates for the Senate can speak about pregnancy from rape being either a “gift from God” or biologically impossible in the case of “legitimate rape.” It’s a culture where comedians like Daniel Tosh or Tucker Max can joke about violently raping, as Max puts it, a “gender hardwired for whoredom.” The themes of power, rape and lack of accountability are just as clear in the case of the Steubenville, Ohio, football players not only boasting that they “so raped” an unconscious girl but feeling confident enough to videotape their boasts.
As Jessica Valenti wrote at TheNation.com, “It’s time to acknowledge that the rape epidemic in the United States is not just about the crimes themselves, but our own cultural and political willful ignorance. Rape is as American as apple pie—until we own that, nothing will change.”
If the sports media is any indicator, we’re nowhere close to owning this reality. Instead, on Monday night, much of the country will cheer for the Fighting Irish of old Notre Dame. It’s as American as apple pie.
For more on rape culture in the world of football—and the backlash against it—read Allison Kilkenny's coverage of the ongoing case in Steubenville, Ohio.