What About Lizzy?

I’m sure you have heard more than you want to about Manti Te’o and his make-believe girl friend. The story has been told again and again about the fictional girl the Notre Dame linebacker fell in love with online whose “tragic” death inspired the man to play at the highest levels — and thereby (coincidentally) improve his chances of winning the Heisman trophy and going higher in the NFL draft. In any event, the story has been beaten to death — which is not to say we have heard the last of it. But one very interesting feature of that story was brought out by Christine Brennan in USA Today on January 20th when she noted the amount of ink that has been spilled telling Manti’s story while at the same time the story about the death of Lizzy Seeberg, a former (real-life) Freshman at St. Mary’s College, is widely ignored.

It turns out that Lizzy was assaulted by a Notre Dame football player in 2010. She filed a formal complaint with authorities against the advice of a friend who warned her that she shouldn’t “mess with Notre Dame football.” Her complaint was ignored and the football player was never even contacted by campus police; a week later Lizzy committed suicide. Her written complaint was later regarded as inadmissible: since she was no longer alive to testify it was mere hearsay. The player has never been charged. Further, the story was completely ignored for 2 1/2 months until it came to light as a result of a Chicago Tribune story. And yet we still hear nothing from the University about Lizzy’s death and the events that might have brought it about, while we hear endlessly about the death of a fictional girl who may well be part of a hoax designed by Te’o and even condoned by the University — which has been very public in defending the football player while it kept mum about Lizzy’s death.

What we have here is a combination of two things: (1) a new double standard which demands that college athletes be treated differently from other students, and (2) the culture of secrecy that surrounds and protects major college football and which came to a head recently in the Penn State scandal. It is clear that football players and even the coaches themselves, are held to different standards of conduct from the rest of the student-body at the major colleges. Football and basketball programs prefer it if the administration doesn’t get involved in their business, and they pretty much get their way.  After all, they bring in huge amounts of money and that is rapidly becoming the name of the game — if it hasn’t been right along.

The double standard we are all too familiar with encouraged many to brag about men like Magic Johnson and Wilt Chamberlain who had illicit love affairs with hundreds of women — or so they claimed — and those same people would tar a young woman and cover her with feathers if it was said that she had slept with half that many men. Martina Navratilova pointed that out at the time and she was spot on. But while we still seem to expect women to behave better than men, the old double standard has been largely replaced by the new one that is seen mostly on college campuses, but is also evident in the culture at large. It reflects the hero-worship talented athletes enjoy as the law seems always to allow them more leeway than the rest of us. In our colleges and universities it translates into the high comfort-level enjoyed by the athletes as they are assured the protection of their coaches and administrators no matter how outrageous their behavior.

So in the end Lizzy’s death goes unnoticed while the airwaves are filled with the gossip about Manti Te’o and his fictional girlfriend. It’s enough to make a person take up strong drink — if he hadn’t already done so long ago.