Fake girlfriends, sexual assault, and Notre Dame football: An American media story

| Staff Columnist
Margaret Flatley | Student Life

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.

  • Anonymous

    These comments make me sick. A girl killed herself and all people seem to care about is the reputation of ND football.

  • knuterockne’s ghost

    The St. Joseph County Prosecutor’s Office decided not to press charges against any Notre Dame student in Lizzy Seeberg’s case. A Mr. Michael Dvorak, writing on the Office’s behalf, said that there were conflicts in the witness testimonials, and that subpoenaed phone records conflicted with Seeberg’s complaint.

  • knuterockne’s ghost

    Putting the Notre Dame campus police front and center as the responsible agency for her suicide is way off the mark. Ms. Seeberg’s care after the incident was more the responsibility of her own college, and…. her parents. What was her parent’s reaction in seeing to her care? They lived in the Chicago suburbs just a two hours’ drive away. Did they go see their daughter, especially since they knew of her illness and of her heightened vulnerability and the weakness her psyche? My understanding is that they never visited their daughter prior to her suicide. With their better knowledge of the risks to her well-being, what were they thinking?

  • knuterockne’s ghost

    The Seeberg case has been tried in the court of public opinion, with the majority voting to condemn the accused being avid National Enquirer readers and avid ND haters. The allegations contained in that story are just too juicy to doubt its veracity. Just let the accused dangle in the wind of “informed” public opinion, right?

  • knuterockne’s ghost

    No students in the dorm that night heard any screams or loud protests from Ms. Seeberg. And so we had only two witnesses to the event: Ms. Seeberg being one, and who was known to have suffered from deep depression and to have an anxiety disorder. One of the symptoms of her illiness is irrational fears and misapprehension of possible or impending harm. Still, even now in hindsight, there has not been any question by any news account of the story as to how Ms. Seeberg’s illiness could have affected her perception of the encounter with the Notre Dame football player. That’s not attacking the dead victim. That’s raising a fair question that I would expect that the parents of the football player would want to have answered. Just asking a question that may point to the possibility of there being two victims involved in this case.

  • knuterockne’s ghost

    Supposedly per Ms. Seebrerg, the “sexual assault” or attempted sexual assault was interrupted when the accused football player answer his telephone. She then left football player’s room, weeping. Now, how likely is a male perpetrator hell bent on committing rape going to interrupt his criminal act in order to answer his phone?

  • knuterockne’s ghost

    A Notre Dame Security Police officer was called to the hospital and spoke with Seeberg, who gave him her handwritten account of the incident. The officer told her the matter will be investigated and she could also take it to the prosecutor’s office for possible criminal charges, or have it run through the university’s disciplinary hearing process, or both. Seeberg tells the officer: “At the very least, someone needs to have a serious talk with him.”

  • knuterockne’s ghost

    The alleged assault was to have occurred in the dorm room of the Notre Dame football player accused by her of having sexually assaulted her. The alleged attack was said to have taken place by Ms. Seeberg after the player’s friend and his friend’s girlfriend left the room the night of August 31st. The next day, she went to the Saint Joseph Regional Medical Center for an exam, reporting that she was sexually assaulted about 11:30 p.m. the night before. No evidence was found that she had been raped; no DNA to sample, and there was no evidence of violence. Now why wouldn’t this cause everyone to begin to question the veracity of her allegations?

  • knuterockne’s ghost

    After the alleged incident Ms. Seeberg received treatment at local South Bend hospital, and consented to a DNA evidence kit, and was offered counseling. Obviously she claimed she had been raped, or why else was she offered the DNA evidence kit?

  • knuterockne’s ghost

    While I am extremely sympathetic to the parents of Ms. Seeberg whose daughter’s death was referenced in the article just cited, I am equally sympathetic to the parents of the Notre Dame football player accused of sexual assault. How about you? Anyone else think the parents of the football player have a reason to be concerned with his automatic condemnation of guilt?

  • Impartial Observer

    Previous commenters, please pay attention. This is an editorial – aka opinion piece – and is posted in the forum, NOT the news section. So, attacking this author’s work for not being a hard enough hitting piece of investigative journalism (in your opinion) is pointless.

    On that note, if you’re really looking for facts, there are plenty in the Washington Post piece by Michelle Hannenberger (intimidation of the accuser, “slow to respond” and “ineffective” campus police, etc.), although you’ve probably already written her off as another mud slinger. If so, by all means, keep your head stuck in the sand and continue waving that kelly green flag.

    • Meghan

      Actually if you look at the dates of all of her pieces, they come after other journalists have written pieces that contain the same facts. All she does is regurgitate the facts with her own negative spin on them.

  • Meghan

    If you go to Wash. U, how do you know that ND “bars” police from talking to their football players without going through the athletic department? I’m pretty sure no police talked to the athletic department before Michael Floyd and Tommy Rees were arrested?

    Also there was an abundance of articles written on the subject of Seeberg’s death in 2010 when it happened. Because the national media didn’t latch onto the story is not the fault of ND. ND did address the issue, police did investigate, and no charges were brought forth due to conflicting accounts of what happened from Seeberg and her friends. Also ND was bound by law from talking about her case due to student privacy issues. There is obviously no privacy when the person doesn’t exist and they are given permission by the other person involved (Te’o) to talk about the case.

    In addition, ND investigated Seeberg’s death and the probe into her alligations and from what they found, they also revamped their guidelines on how to handle sexual assault allegations in order to be clearer on what should take place during the investigation as well as how/when/ and to whom it should be reported and passed along.

    Maybe next time instead of just reading all the other opinion pieces that have popped up in the past week, you should do some research before you write what you intended to be an informative piece of journalism. Instead you are no better than all the other writers who are just trying to crucify ND.

  • Wash U Alum

    Could you please list some facts about the Seeberg case? I assume that as a student newspaper you aspire to great journalism. Throwing around terms like “slow to respond” and “ineffective” is imprecise. Notre Dame was also “slow to respond” and “ineffective” regarding the Manti Te’o situation. They knew on 26 Dec, but said nothing until after the Deadspin article.
    At the center of ND’s defense is student privacy. The University does not want to trample the rights of its students – not Lizzy, not the football player who allegedly assaulted her and not Manti. The analysis of student privacy and its role in campus investigations would be a good story. A cold hard look at what actually happened with Lizzy, not a cursory drive-by smear, would also be a good use of print, but not another “big football steamrolls all” unoriginal repeat.