A lot has happened in the world of sports— more specifically college football — since my last column. With bowl season becoming an increasingly more elaborate month of celebration, and slowly creeping up on Thanksgiving (mark my words), there is a lot to be discussed.
So I will start where everyone should start, and that is with the victory of my Northwestern Wildcats over the Mississippi State Bulldogs in the Gator Bowl. After their last bowl victory came in the Rose Bowl of 1949 (and in hindsight, it was a miracle we won that game), the Wildcats held off the Bulldogs to earn their first bowl victory in 64 years. A true day of celebration in the Newcomb household followed, and a lot of relief. Mostly relief.
However, the story in college football that everyone is talking about is the nonexistent girlfriend of Manti Te’o. For those not privy to this story, Manti Te’o, Notre Dame’s star linebacker, has recently come forward to explain that his girlfriend who reportedly died last fall, never existed. If you are confused, you are now up to speed.
Countless articles have been written on the topic and everyone seems to be taking the opportunity to carry on the joke. Even beyond the typical sports realm, people like Jon Stewart are contributing to the growing popularity and fascination with this story.
A story this strange has not dominated the media in my memory, and what is absolutely clear to me is that nothing is clear.
I am not afraid to say that I don’t know a lot more than that. While I have read as many relevant articles as I could possibly get my hands on since Deadspin’s first article a couple weeks ago, I don’t know the facts. Everything seems to conflict from one story to the next, and not just minor details. Huge fundamental facts of the story seem incomplete.
However, what makes the situation unique is the pageantry surrounding this story. Rather than a recruiting scandal or a rules violation, which many college football programs have faced in the past few years, Manti Te’o had been built up as a legend of the Notre Dame football program throughout the season; a title which was epitomized by his runner-up finish for the Heisman Trophy.
And with this importance and attention from the national college football fans, Te’o’s story about his girlfriend who tragically died during the season from leukemia reinforced his popularity in a way that seemed fitting for the making of a Notre Dame legend overcoming adversity and playing in honor of his grandmother (who actually died) and his beloved girlfriend.
While Te’o maintains that he is the victim of a hoax, the way in which Notre Dame athletic director, Jack Swarbrick immediately rushed to the defense of his star player was disturbing.
During a press conference discussing the investigation that Notre Dame had launched to uncover the truth of this story, Swarbrick became emotional and was brought to tears when he discussed what a trusting person Te’o is, and his regret that his player would never be able to have the same trust in people.
This incident comes amid scandals surrounding the Notre Dame program during the past few seasons. They have included the death of a student who was filming the Notre Dame football practice during extremely high winds when the video tower he was on collapsed, as well as the death of Elizabeth Seeberg.
Lizzy Seeberg was a student at St. Mary’s College (which is a neighboring college of Notre Dame) who committed suicide after reporting that she had been sexually assaulted by a Notre Dame football player and was subsequently threatened and bullied by other players for reporting the case.
Given these other tragic events that have marked the Notre Dame campus, and the football program specifically, it was jarring to see the athletic director moved to tears when talking about Te’o’s imaginary girlfriend.
Where the other two tragedies are, in my opinion, the direct responsibility and fault of the football program through negligence and ignorance, this was the incident that was found to be so emotional for Swarbrick. Having fostered and enabled the communal mourning of a person that never existed only to then become so upset when considering the effect it would have on Te’o moving forward, seems to be insulting.
The reaction of Swarbrick epitomizes the importance of defending the integrity and brand of Notre Dame football. A program that has won 11 national championships throughout its illustrious history definitely has a record to uphold, but it appears to be coming at a cost.
After what I can only categorize as an embarrassing national championship game against Alabama, Notre Dame’s image is taking a huge hit, and it’s one that the university is fighting to defend in a way that only contributes to the criticism.
It doesn’t matter very much to me who ultimately is responsible for the Te’o girlfriend hoax. As a cynic, I believe that Te’o will only speak in interviews with a well-crafted script to accurately account for any inconsistencies in his story, and that we will not learn much of the truth.
The focus of the story is the importance of maintaining Notre Dame’s image. It’s possible, if not likely, that this is the first time you are hearing about Lizzy Seeberg’s death, which was a tragic story that did not gain nearly the amount of publicity as that of Manti Te’o’s girlfriend hoax.
As far as this attempt to uphold the glory of Notre Dame, I’m not sure that there are a lot of people who are going to be convinced by an athletic director’s press conference about the hoax surrounding a fake dead girlfriend. It certainly doesn’t sound like the trademark of a respected program to me.