Fake girlfriends, sexual assault, and Notre Dame football: An American media story
In 2010, Lizzy Seeberg, a freshman at St. Mary’s College, committed suicide. Her death came ten days after she reported being sexually assaulted by an unidentified member of the Notre Dame football team.
On Sept. 12, 2012, another woman linked to Notre Dame football died. Lennay Kekua, a student at Stanford University and girlfriend of Notre Dame’s star linebacker Manti Te’o, died of leukemia.
Seeberg’s death was trivialized by Notre Dame’s administration. She immediately reported being sexually assualted to the campus police. However, ten days later, the Notre Dame campus police had not yet contacted the alleged assaulter for questioning. Seeberg had been receiving threatening texts from members of the team, warning her to be careful “messing with Notre Dame football.”
Kekua’s death was used as a rallying point for Notre Dame football, Te’o and the entire university. Te’o would go on to become the most dominant defensive player in the country, and the team would make it all the way to the BCS National Championship game. Throughout the season and in the run-up to the final game, every major sports media outlet in the country ran stories about Kekua’s tragic death.
Seeberg’s death was a very real tragedy and one that is all too common on college campuses nationwide. Kekua’s death was not a tragedy because she did not exist. Some believe Te’o helped fabricate this fake girlfriend for publicity, while others claim that he was the victim of a hoax.
However, this article is not about Te’o. This story is about media coverage and college football institutions that allow a tragedy like Seeberg’s suicide to go unnoticed while latching on to a farce like Kekua’s “death.” Notre Dame was slow and ineffective in its reaction to Seeberg’s alleged assault and suicide. However, it reacted swiftly to the scandal surrounding Kekua, who was not a real person. The fact that a major university would so quickly defend a football player with a fake online girlfriend, but would be so reluctant to react to a sexual assault case that led to a real person’s suicide is alarming and indicates serious flaws within the college football system.
Very few stories were published about Seeberg’s death, and the football player who allegedly assaulted her was able to go on playing. Kekua’s “death” became national news, not because it was more tragic, but because it fit in perfectly with the classic sports narrative surrounding the Fighting Irish football team. It took a college student writing for Deadspin to finally uncover the fraud.
The Notre Dame police are not necessarily the ones to blame for their inability to act because the Notre Dame administration effectively bars police from questioning athletes directly without going through the athletic department first. This bureaucratic roadblock may be the reason that the player Seeberg claimed assaulted her was not questioned until several days after her suicide.
I’ve loved college football my entire life, but I’ll be the first to say that something has to be done about the entitled mindset among college athletic programs that allows things like Seeberg’s death to occur. School administrations build up their athletes and coaches to be heroes and cover up their wrongdoings to keep the narrative going. This kind of culture is exactly what allowed the Penn State sexual abuse scandal to continue for decades. Something must be done to hold players and coaches more accountable for their actions, and the national sports media needs to address its reluctance to talk about sexual assault. College football is an American institution because of its central principles of amateurism and integrity. If its integrity is to survive, we need to start having a serious conversation about campus culture and sexual assault.