There are many who will be happily rooting for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish against the Alabama Crimson Tide in tonight's national championship college football game. Some are excited by the legendary football program's return to prominence. Others are ready for a change from the SEC dominance of the past several years.
I won't be rooting for the Fighting Irish (in fact, if anything, I'll likely be watching the Celtics-Knicks game). For one thing, I find Notre Dame's default positon as "America's Team" inherently annoying. But, far more importantly, two of the Notre Dame players taking the field tonight have been accused of rape and sexual assault. Not that much has been made of it in the sports media.
"Sexual violations of all kinds happen on every campus, I know," Melinda Henneberger wrote recently in the Washington Post, "and neither man will ever be found guilty in court; one of the victims is dead [she committed suicide] and the other, according to the Notre Dame student who drove her to the ER afterward, in February 2011, decided to keep her mouth shut at least in part because she’d seen what happened to the first woman. Neither player has ever even been named, and won’t be here, either, since neither was charged with a crime."
(Henneberger, herself a Notre Dame graduate, who was raised in a Notre Dame family, has reported extensively on the alleged rape cases for the National Catholic Reporter. You can read more of her work here.)
"Two years ago, Lizzy Seeberg, a 19-year-old freshman at Saint Mary’s College, across the street from Notre Dame, committed suicide after accusing an ND football player of sexually assaulting her," continues Henneberger. "The friend Lizzy told immediately afterward said she was crying so hard she was having trouble breathing.
"Yet after Lizzy went to the police, a friend of the player’s sent her a series of texts that frightened her as much as anything that had happened in the player’s dorm room. “Don’t do anything you would regret,” one of them said. “Messing with Notre Dame football is a bad idea.”"
In what is becoming something of a disastrous bit of commentary on the current state of our society, it is starting to feel like stories involving both rape and football are becoming as common as office cooler analysis by Monday morning quarterbacks.
Recently, a video posted by the hacker-activist group Anonymous showed high school students in Steubenville, Ohio joking about student athletes taking a young woman, who had passed out, from party to party, raping her repeatedly. So far, two football players have been charged with rape.
And of course, a year ago, former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was charged with repeatedly raping young boys. A scandal which, thankfully, did make news far beyond the sports media landscape.
As many have noted, big time college football is a big business, with entire regional economies often being built upon the draw of the local gridiron heroes. This year, for example, Forbes ranked Notre Dame as the third most profitable program in the country, worth more than $100 million, including a profit of close to $50 million. Therefore, big time universities, and their corresponding football programs, stand to lose much in the wake of scandals of sexual assault, not to mention their cover up. But still, suggests Dave Zirin, sports editor at The Nation, the notion of the company football town isn't enough to explain the national hysteria over the Penn State scandal, and the relative silence currenty being enjoyed by Notre Dame.
"The only answer that makes sense is that raping women has become "normalized" in our culture while raping little boys has not," writes Zirin. "The only answer that makes sense is that the rape of a young boy sets all sorts of alarms of horror in the minds of the very male sports media, while the rape of women does not. The only answer that makes sense is that it's been internalized that while boys are helpless in the face of a predator, women are responsible for their assault. The accusers are the accused."
"But it's also an issue beyond the commodification of women on a big football campus," Zirin continues. "It's the fruit of a culture where politicians can write laws that aim to define the difference between "rape" and "forcible rape" and candidates for senate can speak about pregnancy from rape being either a “gift from God” or biologically impossible in the case of “legitimate rape.” It’s a culture where comedians like Daniel Tosh or Tucker Max can joke about violently raping, as Max puts it, a "gender hardwired for whoredom.""
As Zirin notes, the intertwining "themes of power, rape, and lack of accountability" have become far too prevalent in our sports, and in our society as well.