Rah Rah for Rapists!!!

Under the Tarnished Dome book coverI’ll never forget the night I became a Notre Dame football fan.

It was New Year’s Eve, 1973, and Notre Dame was playing Paul “Bear” Bryant’s Alabama team in the Sugar Bowl for the national championship.

The Fighting Irish won the game 24-23 and the AP’s final poll had Notre Dame as Number 1. However, the UPI (coaches) poll had already released it’s final poll before the bowl game with the Crimson Tide on top. Today, both schools list 1973 as a championship year.

But, it was Notre Dame that won my heart that evening. The excitement, the drama, the exhilaration of the victory hooked me as a fan at the age of twelve.

Ever since I can remember, my family has been part of the Notre Dame “subway alumni”, a fan base with no academic connection to the university. Being “Irish Catholic” from the Chicago area, it was a natural allegiance and one which is shared by many.

As a kid, I was impressed that a Hollywood movie was made about the Notre Dame football team, even before the actor who played George Gipp in Knute Rockne, All American was elected President of the United States.

I’d also found it fascinating when I’d see or hear references to Notre Dame football in movies, books, or stories. Another cool thing about Notre Dame was that, unlike other colleges which are located in a town or city, Notre Dame is located in Notre Dame – Notre Dame, Indiana. All of these things made Notre Dame special.

My dad’s boss and friend was an ND alum and season ticket holder. Whenever he’d have extra tickets, he’d ask my dad if he was interested. The answer was always yes.

My family took many trips to Notre Dame which was ninety minutes from our home. We’d take pictures of the Golden Dome; say a prayer at the grotto; and view the relics encased in the crypt below the chapel. The school provided more than Saturday afternoon entertainment. It was a place of spiritual renewal.

But, like in every soul, shadows are often cast.

  • In 1974, within the year of the Sugar Bowl victory over Alabama, six Notre Dame football players were accused of gang-raping a local woman. The players were never criminally charged but the university suspended them for one year for violating campus rules. Four of the players – Ross Browner, Luther Bradley, Al Hunter, and Willie Frye – returned and played on the 1977 championship team. The woman spent a month in the psychiatric ward of a South Bend hospital.
  • Kori Pienovi was a Notre Dame freshman in 1997 when she was allegedly raped by Cooper Rego. Notre Dame dismissed Rego and banned him from the campus for life. He was a freshman backup tailback at the time and transferred to West Virginia.
  • In 2002, Notre Dame expelled three current players and one former player for allegedly gang-raping a woman. According to their accuser, the administration punished the players only when she insisted on going public after they urged her not to. She said they used a refrain which, I know, is commonly repeated by bishops and priest-rapists to victims of clergy sexual assault in an effort to keep them from reporting their crimes, “No one’s going to believe you.”
  • On August 31, 2010, Lizzy Seeberg, a student at St. Mary’s College which is across the street from Notre Dame, sent text messages to her therapist and a friend about “something bad” that had happened with a Notre Dame football player in his dorm room. After Seeberg reported the incident to the campus police, a friend of the player started calling her and sending her threatening text messages including one that read, “Don’t do anything you would regret. Messing with Notre Dame football is a bad idea”.  On September 10th of that year, Lizzy died from a lethal dose of prescription medication. It wasn’t until five days after her death – 2 weeks after she reported the incident – that the Notre Dame police met with the football player she had accused.
  • One Notre Dame student who remains anonymous has said she was raped by a different Notre Dame football player at an off-campus party in 2011. He was never punished but is not on this year’s team. After witnessing the reaction to Lizzy Seeberg after she went public – and seeing the player going untouched by the authorities – she decided to keep her secret just that.
  • A resident advisor of the dorm in which the above student lived and who drove her to the hospital after the assault said she was also raped on the Notre Dame campus two years earlier however not by a football player.
  • Ann Therese Palmer, a Notre Dame alumus, attorney, financial writer, and editor of Thanking Father Ted: Thirty-five Years of Notre Dame Co-Education, realized two of her friends who had been roommates at Notre Dame both had daughters who reported being raped by male students there. Palmer now feels compelled to warn young women who are thinking of going there.

Melinda Henneberger, a graduate of Notre Dame who is a political writer for the Washington Post wrote an article for the National Catholic Reporter titled Reported Sexual Assault at Notre Dame Leaves More Questions than Answers

As Henneberger has found from interviews and her own personal feelings, even those who love Notre Dame and had good experiences as students there are often troubled by the pattern of sexual violence on the campus as well as the ineffective responses by the school’s administration.

The reality at Notre Dame doesn’t quite jive with the legendary image the university promotes.

All of this should not have come as a surprise to me. When I used to visit my two younger sisters while they were students at St. Mary’s, I learned the nickname for the dirt pathway that connects the two campuses – Rape Road.

In the ’90’s when one of the biggest rivalries in college football was between Notre Dame and the University of Miami, the new slogan out of South Bend was Catholics v. Convicts. This was a response to several arrests or suspensions of members of the Hurricane’s football team. Miami’s roster was littered with gang members while Notre Dame only played law-abiding, church-going student-athletes, emphasis on student.

That was the well-marketed narrative Notre Dame was pushing.

When Under the Tarnished Dome was published in 1993, I wouldn’t even read it. I as “all in” with the idea that Notre Dame was special and, yes, better than everyone else. Of course, I thought, there will always be people who will go to any lengths to bring down Number One.

This warped perception I had of Notre Dame and it’s football program began to unravel after I read an article written by ND alumnus John Salveson. It is titled, I Was Abused…. and 25 Years Later I’m Still Trying to Make Things Right.

Salveson’s true account takes the reader to places I knew from my many visits to Notre Dame, namely the Morris Inn and Cavanaugh Hall. More than any other account of clergy sexual abuse I have read or heard, this one hit home with me because of my familiarity with those campus landmarks.

Campus sexual assaults are certainly not unique to the University of Notre Dame. Yet, Notre Dame has spent millions creating an image for itself as the Gold Standard of Righteousness.

The university has annointed its football team with an air of moral – and academic – superiority. After each home game, team members assemble in a corner of the field facing the student body – muscular arms in a collective linear hug – and sing Notre Dame, Alma Mater (Our Lady, Our Mother), a prayer to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

During televised broadcasts of their football games, Notre Dame-sponsored commercials feature Notre Dame students who travel across the globe to help the weak and wounded of the world. But when one of their own is traumatized by one – or more – of their own, the official institutional response is quite cold.

Children in Uganda can’t hurt the Notre Dame football program. Coeds at Notre Dame and St. Mary’s can. And that makes all the difference.

“Football is clearly the most important thing on campus”, says former ND player Gerry DiNardo. That’s what was said about Penn State where the powers-that-be turned a blind eye to reports of young boys being raped on campus by a football coach.

A comment on Amazon’s page for Under the Tarnished Dome seems to hit the nail on the head. It reads, in part:

“Notre Dame does quite well on graduation rates and other measures of the program beyond wins and losses. Where they shoot themselves in the foot is the perennial posturing that they somehow are a higher life form. ND does have a PR machine second to none. That said, they long ago started believing their own press clippings.” (Amanda Reckonwith)

While Penn State has paid a heavy price for its sins, Notre Dame continues to shine – all the way to the January 7th BCS champsionship Orange Bowl game against none other than the Crimson Tide.

The player accused of sexually assaulting Lizzy Seeberg will be suited up and ready to play for the Fighting Irish. All of the former players who have been accused of even worse offenses will probably be watching.

My daughter – a sophomore – will also be watching the Orange Bowl. She will be cheering for her classmates on the field.

The ones who play for the Crimson Tide at the University of Alabama.