Commentary

Notre Dame stumbles again

Updated: January 22, 2013, 1:28 AM ET
By Jemele Hill | ESPN.com

If you recall, the Penn State child sex abuse scandal was supposed to be college football's teachable moment, because it was a case study in how unchecked power and misguided loyalty is a toxin to integrity.

While the criminality at the root of Penn State's crisis in no way compares to the evolving soap opera Notre Dame has on its hands with Manti Te'o, there are similar missteps -- namely the clumsy rush to protect the school and the team's reputation, potentially at the expense of their integrity.

Just like at Penn State, a pattern of willing cluelessness has emerged at Notre Dame.

[+] EnlargeSwarbrick
AP Photo/Joe RaymondNotre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick defends Manti Te'o.

All season, Te'o's story had been upheld as the most inspirational in college football, if not in all of sports. Te'o's story was characterized as a heartwarming fable, and it turns out a significant part of it was exactly that -- the tallest of tales.

Lennay Kekua, the loving girlfriend who supposedly died the same day as Te'o's grandmother, never existed. Kekua and Te'o's "relationship" existed only online and over the phone.

The truth is, as Te'o told ESPN's Jeremy Schaap in an off-camera interview Friday night, Te'o never even met Kekua. He has maintained that he is the victim of a hoax. Te'o admitted to reporters he "tailored" stories of his relationship -- where I'm from, that's called lying -- and despite the numerous red flags about Kekua's existence, Te'o seemed very comfortable describing their relationship as if it were a Harlequin romance.

Te'o claims he was just too ashamed to admit that he never met Kekua. But regardless of whether you believe Te'o is guilty or simply was "catfished" -- and I'll be the first to admit that I'm still having a difficult time seeing him completely as a victim -- the most bizarre sight in this entire ordeal was Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick becoming emotional as he adamantly supported Te'o at a hastily called news conference last week.

Let that sink in: An athletic director calling a news conference to explain a star linebacker's involvement with a fake dead girlfriend.

"Nothing about what I have learned has shaken my faith in Manti Te'o one iota," Swarbrick said. "The same great young man, great student, and great athlete that we have been so proud to have be a member of our family is the same guy tonight, unchanged in any way."

Swarbrick's praise of Te'o and his eagerness to acquit his star linebacker of any wrongdoing after Notre Dame conducted a flimsy investigation into the matter is dubious, at best.

Maybe in time there will be a better understanding of why such emphatic public support was warranted. But as Swarbrick choked back tears, just one question popped into my mind.

Did Swarbrick ever cry for Lizzy Seeberg?

You see, this is far from the first time that Notre Dame has stood by a football player in the midst of some questionable circumstances.

In 2010, Seeberg, who was a student at St. Mary's College, which is right across the street from Notre Dame and is its sister school, accused a Notre Dame football player of sexual assault. And the reason I say Seeberg "was" a student is because she committed suicide 10 days after reporting the assault to Notre Dame campus police.

The identity of the football player allegedly involved remains unknown. But what is known is that campus police didn't even bother to interview the accused player until five days after Seeberg was dead. The local prosecutor refused to press charges. And, to date, Notre Dame president Rev. John Jenkins has refused to meet with Seeberg's family.

Notre Dame's investigation into Kekua hinged mostly on evidence provided by Te'o, but the school still responded with greater alacrity to a report of a fictitious person than Seeberg's accusations.

[+] EnlargeNotre Dame Helmet
Cal Sport Media/AP ImagesThis is another opportunity for Notre Dame to reflect on what it sees in those golden helmets.

But Seeberg's tragic suicide is merely the extension of a much more significant problem, which exists not just at Notre Dame, but across the entire sports landscape.

Part of the reason Notre Dame's role in Te'o's saga warrants a wary eye is because the school's actions seem to denote that it has formed a clear priority list, and almost always the golden helmet is uncontested at the top spot.

This is the same university that reinstated wide receiver Michael Floyd in August 2011 after he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges stemming from a DUI arrest the previous March. Even though it was Floyd's third alcohol-related offense in two years, the school's student judiciary office chose not to suspend him.

Floyd missed spring ball, but he was allowed to participate in voluntary workouts that summer. He never missed a single game, either.

"We took football away and it was really about making a decision to change his life because I didn't believe suspending for a game or two was going to make a difference," coach Brian Kelly said at the time.

Took football away?

This isn't about whether Floyd deserved yet another chance. It's fair to wonder whether Te'o's drama is just another example of Notre Dame being too eager to protect its football aura.

It seems that no matter how many precedents show the dangers of blindly idolizing football programs, they never diminish the ability to repeat integrity-sapping mistakes.

Of course, it's possible that in time, Te'o's explanation will seem more reasonable and Swarbrick's vigilant, public defense of Te'o will seem more sensible.

But as of now, Notre Dame deserves healthy suspicion. The school has earned it.

Jemele Hill | email

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