Thrill of Victory

Te'o deception should have us asking bigger questions about Notre Dame

Thus far, 2013 is shaping up as the Year of the Liar in sports. Today, I was planning to write about Lance Armstrong’s elaborate deception until Manti Te’o and the crazy tale of his made-up girlfriend, Lennay Kekua and her tragic, made-up death hit the news and trumped everything.

Notre Dame is doing everything within its power to spin this story. Yesterday, its athletic director, Jack Swarbrick, tearfully called Te’o a “victim of a hoax,” and Te’o used the same sort of language in a public statement he made yesterday. But there are holes all throughout it, not the least of which is Te’o claim yesterday that he’d met her online. That contradicts the story he’d been telling for months, which is that he met her on Stanford’s campus in 2009 after a football game.

If we should have learned anything yesterday, it’s not to be gullible. Notre Dame said that Te’o would address the situation this week (presumably, today) but Te’o is in Florida training as he prepares for the NFL Draft, and so far has not announced plans to speak further.

Interestingly enough Notre Dame claims that Te’o informed them of the hoax on Dec. 26. If Teo’s story was so coherent and convincing that Swarbrick bought it hook, line and sinker, and if Notre Dame had over three weeks to process what its star player had told them, why can’t someone associated with the university give us answers that make any sense by now?

Hmmmm…

When Armstrong lied, it was at least understandable (though obviously inexcusable) why he did it: his entire career and his multi-million-dollar fortune are at stake. Sometimes, even good people (not that Armstrong appears to be a good person) lie about things under the pressure of dire consequences.

When someone concocts a story like Te’o’s, it boggles the mind. What did he have to gain? Perhaps it was done to bring some publicity to Te’o’s Heisman Trophy campaign, but wasn’t one dying person close to him (yes, his grandmother actually did pass away from illness) good enough?

When people and institutions are untruthful and deceptive when very little is at stake, you imagine what they’ll do when a lot is at risk. So when a certain story, written by Melinda Henneberger at the National Catholic Reporter, popped up on Twitter yesterday, it got my attention.

Here’s the short version: on August 31, 2010, Lizzy Seeberg, a student of nearby St. Mary’s College, was allegedly sexually assaulted by a Notre Dame football player. Seeberg told friends about the incident immediately, and a friend of the player (also, a football player at Notre Dame) began to send text messages and make calls that Seeberg’s friend, Kaleigh Fields, described as “threatening.”

Undeterred, Seeberg – who had no history of making previous accusations towards other men – checked in at the St. Mary’s counseling office for support regarding the assault. About three hours later, she was at a hospital, turning in her clothing and having her body swabbed for saliva as evidence. A detective from the Notre Dame Police Department was summoned, spending an hour with her to take her statement. The detective told Seeberg to let him know if the messages from the accused’s friends continued.

After the conversation with the detective was finished, one more message came from that friend. It read, “Messing with Notre Dame football is a bad idea. Don’t do anything you might regret.”

Seeberg’s family had a long history of supporting Notre Dame. She felt like a traitor for filing the report. Notre Dame was doing nothing to follow up on the case. On September 10, Seeberg cracked, committing suicide by overdosing on pills.

Notre Dame finally got around to looking into the incident after it became national news. The university found the player “not responsible” and he never missed a game.

Five months later, a Notre Dame student reported to her resident assistant that she had been raped at a party by another Notre Dame football player. The alleged victim’s phone, too, blew up with texts from Notre Dame players telling her not to report what happened.

Seeing what had happened to Seeberg, the girl, indeed, reported nothing. As with what happened at Penn State, one can only wonder how many more victims are out there who suffer in silence as well.

Notre Dame had no good reason to believe that Seeberg was a liar, but it did not take her seriously. Five months passed between her death, and the first time they actually met with the accused. Yet when Teo’s tale started coming unraveled – how could he meet her in person many times as he previously claimed, and yet simultaneously never see her face-to-face, as he claimed yesterday? – a Notre Dame administrator was at the podium defending his honor within hours.

Publicly, Notre Dame has said as little as possible about Lizzie Seeberg. Privately, it has done quite a bit to discredit her. Henneberger says one Notre Dame trustee paints Seeberg as “a troubled girl” who had “done this before.” She writes this as well:

“In life, Lizzy was both politically and personally conservative, a brand new member of the College Republicans who led her parish youth group and spoke openly about saving herself for marriage. But Notre Dame officials have painted and passed around a different picture of the dead 19-year-old. Sotto voce, they portray the player as wrongly accused by an aggressive young woman who lied to get back at him for sexually rejecting her the first moment they were ever alone together.”

Yesterday, Notre Dame should have, at a minimum, chosen to acknowledge the blatant inconsistencies with what its star player had represented before and the story that broke on Wednesday. Its failure to do so, at a minimum, should have us asking serious questions about some matters that are far more important.