Briefly, On Football’s Culture and Rape
On Monday, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish will compete for college football’s national championship. This is the kind of thing that gets sportswriters in a tizzy. If you’re of a certain Age, Notre Dame is what college football is all about, so the school’s sudden (and entirely unexpected) reappearance in the sport’s championship is a big deal. So big, in fact, that nothing else matters.
Part of the reason that it’s a big thing is that, as recently as a few years ago, Notre Dame was a football backwater, a school who college football fans rightly saw as receiving much more respect than it actually deserved. Part of this was because of the team’s poor play; part of this was because of the school’s tradition. That tradition condescends to its opponents, insisting that unlike those other schools, things are done right at Notre Dame. But because college football is a thoroughly dirty sport – no reasonable person pretends otherwise – Notre Dame’s detractors have always assumed that the school engaged in as much chicanery as anywhere else.
Chicanery though doesn’t begin to accurately describe Notre Dame in 2010. One of the team’s student assistants died. He had been sent up a scissor lift in high winds to record the team’s practice. The winds blew the scissor lift over and Declan Sullivan died. We were instructed by the school to believe that an accident had occurred, nothing more, despite the obviously dangerous situation that Sullivan’s bosses insisted upon. Maybe that’s a situation that deserves the benefit of the doubt; maybe nobody realized that scissor lift in 60 mile-per-hour winds is incredibly dangerous.
But what’s to make of what happened to Lizzy Seeberg? In 2010, she accused a Notre Dame player of raping her; a week later, she died by her own hand. Between the assault and her suicide, one of the accused player’s friends warned her not to, “…do anything you would regret. Messing with Notre Dame football is a bad idea.” And Notre Dame’s response? Well, it responded much like the Catholic Church that Notre Dame is so proudly associated with; Notre Dame didn’t so much as investigate the accusation as drag Seeberg through the mud while acting like nothing had happened. Here’s Deadspin:
The smear about Seeberg was that she was “a troubled girl” who had “done this before” (according to friends and family members of a “long-serving trustee” at Notre Dame). She was “the aggressor” (according to the accused player’s lawyer, a Notre Dame alum). She was “all over the boy” (according to a “top university official” at Notre Dame). After reporting the alleged assault to campus police, Seeberg was told by a friend of the football player: “Don’t do anything you would regret. Messing with Notre Dame football is a bad idea.” No charges were filed. Notre Dame police didn’t interview the player—who was never disciplined by the school or the football program—until five days after Seeberg killed herself. Later, they told the family they weren’t sure when they could follow up. “They said they were pretty busy,” said Lizzy’s mother, Mary, told Henneberger, “because it’s football season and there’s a lot of underage drinking.”
The Henneberger referenced is Melinda Henneberger, a Notre Dame graduate herself. She did more reporting for the National Catholic Reporter, reporting which seemed to indicate that Seeberg probably wasn’t the only person experiencing the team’s (or the school’s) darker side. That darker side refused to investigate the player Seeberg accused until 15 days after the assault was reported, or five days after Seeberg killed herself.
There’s a funny thing though about Notre Dame’s “investigation” into the assault. It looked then an awful lot like a higher profile investigation looks today. That investigation was the one done in Steubenville, Ohio, after a young woman was gang-raped by local high school football players. As with Notre Dame’s, the investigation was…well, let’s say less than stellar and then flesh that idea out.
There’s this, for instance:
In one photograph posted on Instagram by a Steubenville High football player, the girl, who was from across the Ohio River in Weirton, W.Va., is shown looking unresponsive as two boys carry her by her wrists and ankles. Twitter users wrote the words “rape” and “drunk girl” in their posts.
It took a local blogger, Alexandria Goddard, publishing details of the assault before anybody official in the town would pay any attention.
Before many of the partygoers could delete their posts, photographs or videos, she took screen shots of them, posting them on her site, Prinniefied.com. On Aug. 24, just after the arrests, she wrote on her site that it was “a slam dunk case” because, she said, Mays and Richmond videotaped and photographed their crime and then posted those images on the Web. Goddard pressed her case.
“What normal person would even consider that posting the brutal rape of a young girl is something that should be shared with their peers?” she wrote. “Do they think because they are Big Red players that the rules don’t apply to them?”
So that was where things stood a few days ago. (Reading through that makes things bad enough.)
Then, more disturbingly, this video of a former Steubenville baseball player being less than charitable about the victim even as she’s in the other room, being assault surfaced. (This is not a video I would advise watching; the quoted sections are bad enough):
At one point, a voice belonging to someone off-camera says, “Trent and Ma’lik raped someone.” The two boys charged in the rape are Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond. It’s unclear how many other Steubenville students are in the room at the time, although at least two of them, who remain off-camera, admonish Nodianos for making light of a rape. “What if that was your daughter?” one of them asks. Nodianos replies simply, “But it isn’t.”
The video emerged after an element of the hacker collective Anonymous – a group called KnightSec – got involved as a protest against what it saw as the unacceptably weak official response. That response involved the following punishments:
-The two assailants have been charged. They were also suspended from football for the year.
-Others at the party – including three who testified about the crime, but did nothing themselves to intervene, and may have been amongst those who pushed the story onto various social media outlets – received no immediate punishment, and were only later suspended from football for the season.
KnightSec has begun the process of heaving much of the town under the bus using Anonymous’s famed document dumping technique. Here’s everything released so far. It paints a picture of a small town in which everybody with power knows everybody else with power. It also suggests that those on the right side of that power structure might have received preferential treatment.
And here’s where we stand now. There are rumors that the team’s (legendary) coach, Reno Saccoccia may resign; he, after all, didn’t punish any of his players in the aftermath of the surfaced photos, claiming that his players didn’t think they’d done anything wrong. Investigating police departments are howling about crimes committed by…KnightSec and Anonymous, which seems like the sort of thing that people fundamentally unconcerned about the rape itself might do. Anonymous, predictably, hasn’t exactly offered to back off. Meanwhile, Occupy Steubenville has been going all day, including an interaction between the investigating Sheriff and somebody in a Guy Fawkes mask. The city of Steubenville, overwhelmed by the world’s criticism at what looks to be a coverup of the crime, has set up a website absolving itself of any responsibility for anything.
There are a lot of people who object to football for its on-field violence. I don’t disagree. It gets harder and harder each week to be a fan when we know more and more about what their lives will be like after they’ve long since stopped playing the game. But the sport’s culture is perhaps more concerning, one in which the game’s importance is elevated over everything else, treated as though what happens during those 60 minutes matters more than what happens at any other time.
On Monday night, the player accused of raping Jill Seeberg, a player who was never charged with a crime, will stand either on the sidelines or get into the game. Seeberg, of course, will still be dead. Henneberger, one of the reporters who looked into Seeberg’s allegations, won’t be cheering. Neither will another national reporter, Gregg Doyel; he seems unnerved by the situation. Meanwhile, in Steubenville, it takes online vigilantes to do the work police should have been doing in the outset.
At some point, football and its culture and the idea that nothing else matters must change. I used a period there, but maybe a question mark makes more sense. Because while it ought to change – while the tolerance of these crimes ought to be chased from the culture forever – there’s no way of knowing whether it will. But revelations like what we’ve seen at Notre Dame and what we’re witnessing in Steubenville aren’t going to disappear in a digital age; they’re only going to get bigger and more horrifying. We’re not going to know less in other words. We’re going to know more. It seems then unavoidable that a culture in which nothing is more important than those 60 minutes will have to adjust accordingly.