Sports and sexual abuse

Sports and sexual abuse January 8, 2013

Given the painful experience with sexual abuse in the Church over the past decade or two, Catholics are all-too-familiar with the tendency of powerful cliques to close ranks in the face of allegations of impropriety. Thankfully, I believe things are dramatically better today, even if bishops are still not being held accountable.

But we see the same forces continue to play out in other powerful organizations that instil great tribal loyalty – no more so than in college athletics. We all know the shocking story from Penn State, when students rioted to defend a man who covered up rape. We know the shocking story from Steubenville when high-school football players bragging about raping a teenage girl. In this context, I think it is important to draw attention to this awful story from Notre Dame, where a young woman who alleged she was raped by a member of the football team was threatened to keep her mouth shut, and ended up committing suicide. And even after this, the school sought to defame a dead 19-year old girl to protect the its privileged athletes.

Granted, I am not a sports fan, and I have a particular dislike of American football, but something felt a bit off over the past few days when so many Facebook friends were posting about the glories of this Notre Dame football team. I kept thinking about Lizzy Seeberg and all the other victims of abuse and injustice in the face of a culture that winks at violence and embraces cronyism. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I thought that universities were supposed to prioritize the intellect over gladiatorial contests. Maybe if alumni put more stock in the values of the academy instead of the values of the hippodrome, universities would be less disordered and dysfunctional. After all, when was the last time you heard of this kind of behavior among groups of top-class mathematicians or art historians?

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  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

    Well, I know a number of top-class mathematicians and I can tell some stories that are pretty tawdry, but in the end none of them involve rape. (Sexual harrassment, yes, but thankfully I am not aware of any incidents of rape.)

    It has never been clear to me why athletes, football players in particular, are invested with such a degree of privilege. Is it something to do with the raw physicality of the sport? In NCAA Division I it is easy to blame the corrupting influence of money, but that is not the case in a place like Steubenville.

    • If I had to guess why athletes get this kind of privilege, I’d say it’s because they function much like tribal warriors in our imaginations. And we know what kinds of privileges tribal warriors get.

      Of course, it’s much better to play sports against our neighbours than to to raid, rape and pillage them, but I think that a lot of the psychology overlaps (just look at European soccer). And I think that that psychological overlap lets athletes get away with things the rest of us can’t. These kinds of examples show just how close we are to falling back into barbarism. Civilization (or what passes for it) is built on a very fragile foundation. Silencing and shaming the victims is our attempt to cover up this fact.

  • JL

    Your Seeberg point resonates, but I find it strange that you choose to use Notre Dame as a point in case of failing to “prioritize the intellect over gladiatorial contests.” Granted, devotion to the football program may be excessive, but the benefits of such a lucrative spectacle yield dividends with regards to intellectual endeavors.

  • Rodak

    If you want to see where the priorities are, all you need to do is compare the annual salary of the president of any major university with a big-time sports program to the annual salary of the head football coach: says it all.

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

    “Granted, devotion to the football program may be excessive, but the benefits of such a lucrative spectacle yield dividends with regards to intellectual endeavors.”

    Such as? At most schools, including most NCAA Division I schools, major sports programs run at a loss. Even those (such as Notre Dame or Alabama) that make profits generally plough those profits back into the sport itself, or use them to subsidize other athletic programs. I do not see any monetary benefits flowing to the academic side of the house.

    Or do you mean that there are real but intangible benefits?

    • In both ways. Notre Dame’s athletic revenues are dispersed in a very tangible way to academic and student life endeavors. New dormitories, science halls, etc have been built with funds procured through ticket sales, etc. At least this always what the understanding was on campus. A quick nternet search seems to affirm this: the University boasts that a recent stadium expansion will not only pay for itself, but generate 47 million dollars revenue to spent on academic/student life needs.

      And there definitely is a intangible component as well; ND has one of the largest endowments per student, a product of alumni’s fervent affinity with the university, which I would argue the football team plays a large part in sustaining.

      I think it’s an issue that’s definitely not black and white. There’s no denying football serves a purpose, bringing in an incredible amount of money that goes to nobler pursuits, but there is still the fact that football is such a big deal to begin with, and that athletes are seemingly granted special privileges. It’s definitely better than 99% of other D1 football programs in this regard (football players live in the student dorms [I may or may not have been a certain ND linebackers RA], admission standards are higher, academics are taken more seriously) but exceptional treatment still exists.

  • Peter Paul Fuchs


    I hope you will not take the following as just a gotcha “I told you” moment. But I believe in grappling with these hard realities, you have clearly enunciated something I have been trying to get at again and again. For you have described the RC Church here clearly as one of the “organizations that instills great [!] tribal loyalty.” I have been trying to describe in many different ways that there is in recent times a very operative de facto tribal sense that governs the RC church, which can be read in diverse tactics and decisions that it undertakes. And you have summed it up succinctly by saying simply it is greatly tribal at this point.

    The issue is that it was NOT always thus. The crux is historically that for most of its history it did operate on the European stage (and later more internationally) as a more “universal” phenomenon. Note that universal is the opposite of tribal. And that loyalty to a universal-acting phenomenon has zero relation to just being part of a tribe. I think what has changed is that technology and the RC church now somewhat odd position in the world has attracted many to taking on a truly tribal mentality about their Catholicism. It is a great shame, and a destabilizing reality in an organization that still has so many of the trappings of a universal phenomenon. But I believe you have nailed it, perhaps unintentionally.

  • francisco


    It’s important to clarify a few things about the Notre Dame issue. The whole thing is a tragedy and much more important than football; however, I don’t believe Notre Dame is a university that covers up rape and here’s why.

    Lizzie Seeburg never claimed to have been raped; she claimed that the accused sexually harassed her. I don’t believe this mitigates the alleged crime, but it makes it harder to prosecute and prove. Secondly, the accounts of three witnesses and the cell phone records contradict Ms. Seeburgs’ account of what happened. Thirdly, Ms. Seeburg’s written accounts of what happened would have been inadmissible in court after she passed away.
    This is an important point.

    All of this is to suggest that ND may not have covered up anything or defamed anyone to protect a football player. Given the facts it was almost certainly impossible for the local prosecutor to charge the accused with a crime. Whether or not ND should have disciplined the player is a question you can’t answer without being privy to all the facts of the case. The general public is not privy to all the facts of the case and that includes the author of the Washington Post story.

    All that being said, given that story involves the Catholic Church and College football I can understand why you are suspicous. As a ND alum I acknowledge I am biased.


  • JDE

    It seems doubtful that mathematicians or art historians are more sexually moral by nature than football players. The more probably explanation is that they merely have much less opportunity to be sexually immoral.

  • Ronald King

    As a penn state alum I continue to be extremely disappointed in the leaders and their followers of any institution which cannot admit failure in protecting the innocent victims of violence whatever form that violence takes and openly communicate such failure in a public forum. This reveals something very disturbing within their psyche which needs to be openly explored and discussed.