The Notre Dame Player Who Allegedly Assaulted A Woman (Who Then Committed Suicide) Is Playing For A National Championship

Lizzy Seeberg
CREDIT: Courtesy of the Seeberg Family

Flush off a dramatic 22-13 victory over USC to extend their unbeaten season and propel them into the BCS College Football Championship Game, number 1 ranked Notre Dame is sky-high right now after being largely irrelevant on the college football scene for the past two decades. ABC’s prime-time coverage Saturday night was filled with stories about the team camaraderie, the inspirational leadership of senior linebacker and Heisman hopeful Manti Te’o, and the emergence of freshman quarterback Everett Golson.

One story that wasn’t mentioned is reported by Tim Layden in Sports Illustrated (subscribers only) this week:

The current generation of Notre Dame football will be forever connected-and in a very complex manner-to the lives of Declan Sullivan and Lizzy Seeberg, both of whom died during Brian Kelly’s first season. Sullivan was a 20-year-old junior who worked as a videographer for the football team; he was killed on Oct. 27, 2010, when the portable tower from which he was filming football practice crashed in high winds (after which the practice was not immediately stopped). Seeberg was a 19-year-old freshman at Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Ind.; she accused a Notre Dame football player of assaulting her on Aug. 31, 2010, and 10 days later committed suicide in her dorm room.

…The aftermath of a loss has not been so satisfying for the Seeberg family. After an interaction with a Notre Dame football player on the night of Aug. 31, Seeberg sent a text message to her therapist that said: “Hey- can we talk in a little bit. I’ve been drinking and something bad happened. I can’t talk right now because I’m kinda in an awkward situation but I’m on my way back to saint mary’s.” Upon returning to her room, Seeberg wrote and signed a description of having been assaulted by a Notre Dame football player in his campus dorm room and gave the paper to Notre Dame’s campus police the next day. Two days after the encounter Seeberg received a text message from a friend of the player, which said: “Don’t do anything you would regret. Messing with notre dame football is a bad idea.”

Eight days later Seeberg committed suicide by ingesting a lethal dose of medication that had been prescribed to treat depression and anxiety. Notre Dame police didn’t attempt to contact the accused player until nine days after the alleged assault and didn’t reach him until five days after Seeberg’s death. The story of Seeberg’s accusation and death remained largely unreported until the Chicago Tribune broke it in mid-November of that year. On Dec. 16, 2010, the prosecuting attorney for St. Joseph County announced that there would be no charges filed in the case, most pointedly because Seeberg’s written statement would be ruled inadmissible as hearsay, because she is dead. In his first interview on the subject, Lizzy’s father, Tom Seeberg, told the Tribune, “Ultimately, there’s a sense of betrayal.”

In conversations with SI, Tom Seeberg declined to make further public statements, but it was clear that his outrage has not ebbed. The player accused by Lizzy is still a member of the football team. Rev. John Jenkins, Notre Dame’s president, refused to meet with the Seeberg family, 11 members of which have attended the university (and two others Saint Mary’s). Two years ago, Jenkins made one statement to the South Bend Tribune in which he explained that as the final arbiter of campus discipline he couldn’t meet with the Seebergs because, “I try to remain somewhat distant so I’m not tainted by one side or another presenting their side of the story.” A Notre Dame spokesperson declined further comment this week. The Seeberg case did trigger an investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights into student-on-student sexual harassment, including sexual violence at Notre Dame, and resulted in significant changes in the ways such incidents are handled by the university.

On the first Saturday in November, Tom Seeberg found himself watching part of Notre Dame’s comeback victory over Pittsburgh with his son, the first time they have watched a game since Lizzy’s death. He was not enthralled by the victory and no longer charmed by the traditions. His son once had a PLAY LIKE A CHAMPION poster, but that’s been taken down. Here, as the cameras focused on students singing Notre Dame’s alma mater, he felt himself tearing up, knowing that his girl would have been sitting in the seats. But instead she was gone.

So how is it that the unnamed player is still on the team? Another section of the story – though it doesn’t address the topic directly – explains a change in the relationship between student athletes and the university.

Generations of Notre Dame students, including football players, have lived by the rules laid down in a booklet (and now a Web page) called du Lac: A Guide to Student Life. Hence, when fifth-year senior fullback Rashon Powers-Neal was arrested for DUI in the fall of 2005, du Lac mandated that he be suspended from all extracurricular activities, including intercollegiate athletics. Weis had no say in the decision. Three years later Weis lost tight end Will Yeatman, who was arrested for suspicion of underage drinking, resisting arrest and providing false information in a raid at an off-campus party that nabbed 37 Notre Dame students, including 22 athletes. (The charges were dismissed against Yeatman, who had previously pled guilty to DUI. He transferred to Maryland and now plays for the Dolphins.)

Upon leaving Notre Dame, Weis did an interview with a small group of selected media in which he said, in response to a question about the biggest problem on Notre Dame’s campus, “Oh, it’s Residence Life [the disciplinary branch of the school’s student affairs office]. It’s not even close for second…. I just think these are college kids, and college kids do what college kids do. Let’s say a kid has been too loud because he had some alcohol, why wouldn’t you just tell him to go to bed? … I’m just saying boys will be boys, and I’m just defending them.” (Weis never specifically said that he was talking about football players, but he was the football coach.)

More quietly, in the summer of 2010 Notre Dame dismissed associate vice president for residence life Bill Kirk, who for more than two decades had been du Lac ‘s enforcer. Kirk’s leaving was seen by some in the Notre Dame community as a capitulation to the departed Weis’s clamor for softer discipline. Philosophy associate professor David Solomon, who has taught at the school since 1968 and was the director of Notre Dame’s Center for Ethics and Culture, wrote a 2,000-word post on the online newspaper The Irish Rover, in which he said that football fans, “… frequently charge that Bill Kirk’s enforcement of Notre Dame’s disciplinary code was too harsh and that his insistence that Notre Dame athletes be subject to the same rules as other Notre Dame students was responsible for our repeated failures on the athletic fields.” And also this: “In a summer in which all Domers were celebrating the distance between our oversight of athletics and the disorderly mess at USC, this incident [Kirk’s exit] raised questions about just how different we really are.”

…The changes became evident when wide receiver Michael Floyd was arrested for drunken driving in the spring of 2011, before his final season at Notre Dame. It was Floyd’s third alcohol-related offense during his college career, yet his discipline was handled by Kelly, and Floyd did not miss a game. “With Michael Floyd,” says Kelly, “I was the beneficiary of the student code of conduct being updated. Residential Life is going to be the final authority, but changes to du Lac kept Michael in the university, which then allowed me to discipline him to the level that [I deemed]was appropriate.

Kirk’s departure in the summer of 2010, before the death of Elizabeth “Lizzy” Seeburg probably explains how the player was never punished.

With the Jerry Sandusky scandal still fresh in people’s minds, there may be a feeling that seeing Notre Dame playing in the BCS Championship game (their opponent will probably be the winner of the SEC Championship game) is some sort of vindication for clean, high-minded programs. Other’s may think that this Notre Dame team is following in the footsteps of Knute Rockne, Ara Parseghian, Lou Holtz’s “Do It the Right Way” approach to football at Notre Dame.

Wrong on both counts.

Notre Dame sold its soul for this title shot. That puts them right there in company of Penn State, another “clean” program who sold their soul for wins.

Penn State just did it longer…

Update: Melinda Henneberger, a political writer for The Washington Post, details Seeburg’s sexual assault case, and notes that there have been other unreported cases involving Notre Dame football players both before and after Seeburg’s death. She also reports that 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.” It’s a long, disturbing read that details the culture of stigmatizing the victim and discouraging young women from coming forward.

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