Friday, January 18, 2013

A Fake Dead Girl and a Real Dead Girl... Guess Who the Media Cares More About?

If you're on twitter or facebook or the internet or anywhere in earshot of people who like making jokes about nationwide scandals (I was pretty proud of my hashtag, #morelikenotreSHAME), you've probably heard about Manti Te'o's fake dead girlfriend. The Notre Dame football player gained sympathy this year when he revealed his long distance girlfriend, who survived a brutal car accident, died of cancer the same day that his grandmother died. (His grandmother really did die. That was real.) Whether this was a calculated press grab or a Catfish gone wrong, it's all anyone can talk about.

Notre Dame's reaction to the Te'o scandal (both before it broke and after) has been much larger, as the internet is starting to notice, than their reaction to the 2010 suicide of St. Mary's College freshman Lizzy Seeberg, who died shortly after filing a formal complaint against a Notre Dame football player for sexual assault. The rape case was dismissed, and Seeberg's legacy and unfortunate end (even more unfortunate that this is the fate of many women who have brought sexual assault charges against college athletes) was largely forgotten. Until now.

Irin Carmon for Salon astutely points out that Te'o's story is a "better" one. It's easy to make jokes about, easy to speculate on, and easy to create sensationalist press about. Seeberg's story is tragic and complex. Her story brings in the culture of idol worshipping college athletes receive at large universities. Her story brings in the complicated relationship that college campuses have with handling sexual assault charges. Her story brings in the issue of how to handle harassment after filing a claim of sexual assault. Her story brings into focus the number of women who commit suicide after being raped. None of that is easy to talk about.

In a December article, Melinda Henneberger wrote about why she wasn't excited for her alma mater's, Notre Dame's, football season. (Before the Te'o scandal broke.) She said, "There are plenty of good guys on the team, too, I’m repeatedly told. And oh, that Manti Te’o is inspiring. I don’t doubt it. But as a thought exercise, how many predators would have to be on the team before you’d no longer feel like cheering?" (Emphasis mine.)

People remain divided on the sanctions against Penn State football, and honestly, I don't follow college sports despite having gone to a university with a large sports culture of its own. But should we really be giving these institutions money and attention when there is so much evidence that some college athletes abuse their exalted positions and that the school will cover up their indiscretions? (And sometimes, this culture begins in high school!)
Dave Zirin, my favorite sportswriter (okay, the only sportswriter I read but he's awesome), sums it up nicely:
Within hours of the story breaking online, Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick held a press conference where he backed Te’o to the hilt ... [and] even cried. His behavior only raises more important questions than anything Te’o will face tomorrow. Why hasn’t there been any kind of privately funded, outside investigation into the alleged sexual assaults committed by members of the football team? ...It says so much that Te’o’s bizarre soap opera has moved Swarbrick to openly weeping but he hasn’t spared one tear, let alone held one press conference, for Lizzy Seeberg, the young woman who took her own life after coming forward with allegations that a member of the team sexually assaulted her. Swarbrick’s press conference displayed that the problem at Notre Dame is not just football players without a compass; it’s the adults without a conscience.
This is not to say that all college sports are morally bankrupt. This doesn't mean that I hate football or the players or their coaches. But when we continually face down these stories of abuse of power and sexual assault within the context of college sports, isn't it time to reconsider the kind of power and privilege we grant to these programs? And at the very least, make a concerted effort to change the culture of college sports so that we expect these men to honor their female peers the same way they honor commitment to their teams.

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