The Perils of Standing for Something

Like many dyed-in-the-wool Fighting Irish fans, I was delighted to see the traditional ND gold helmet on the cover of Sports Illustrated, along with the tag, "The Notre Dame Miracle."

My enthusiasm waned when I read the headline of the story inside, which referred to the university as "marching down from the moral high ground." From there, SI writer Tim Layden laid out a case of why Notre Dame's football success only came as the result of loosened standards and immorality. Sure, there was some football discussed in the story as well, but the notion that ND had somehow systematically retreated from its standards stuck in my craw.

Layden wrote of a pair of tragic events that took place on campus in the fall of 2010, tying two student deaths to Notre Dame Coach Brian Kelly and a callous university establishment that would do anything to advance its football program. One was the death of Declan Sullivan, a student videographer who died when a scissor-lift scaffold on which he stood was toppled by heavy winds during a football practice. The other was the suicide of neighboring St. Mary's student Lizzy Seeburg, who had accused an ND football player of sexual assault and then took her life a week or so later.

As related by Layden, these stories portray Coach Brian Kelly as a win-at-all-costs guy who kept his team practicing despite the death of a student just yards away and refused to bench a player accused of sexual assault. The problem with the story is that many of the details of the situation are either inaccurate or simply not included because they didn't fit the narrative Layden wanted to convey.

For the record, Coach Kelly, upon realizing that the scaffolding had toppled and a student critically injured, sent the team to the indoor practice facility with other coaches, while he attended to the dying student. The student who committed suicide had a history of depression and suicide attempts, and there were major inconsistencies to her own story. All records and the original complaint indicate that there was no rape involved. The university followed privacy protocol and opted not to bench the accused player, hence subjecting him to trial by media a la Duke Lacrosse. Based on the facts at hand, there were no grounds to declare the player guilty.

In researching the facts of these stories, I was stunned by the degree of vitriol that hid itself under the mantle of journalism--particularly in the Huffington Post, which was one of the media outlets which most vigorously advanced these stories. I have no problem with journalists pursuing every area of the news, but they ought to try to at least acquaint themselves with facts and the truth.

The real story, though, is not about a pair of student tragedies, as well as the other distorted "evidence" Layden laid out to prove that Notre Dame was "marching down from the moral high ground." It is about a mindset of people who disdain the university because it takes a stand for something.

All universities have flaws, and ND is no different. As an alumna, as a parent, I can attest to that. No place is utopia, including in the shadow of the Golden Dome. It's common in a world of sports rivalries that people will love or hate a football team. That kind of criticism is inherent in the game itself.

Layden's mindset goes far beyond that of a simple football rivalry, however. There is an ideological component at play here as well.

The University of Notre Dame is unabashedly Catholic in its identity. There are chapels with crucifixes in every single dormitory and faculty building as well as in most of the academic buildings--including the law school. Campus rules reflect the Catholic identity--there are no co-ed dormitories and students caught with a member of the opposite sex in a dorm room after parietals (visiting hours) are subject to stringent disciplinary measures.

There are a lot of universities and colleges out there with religious identities that stand for something, but Notre Dame is the one most in the limelight. In the elite circles of academia, religion is considered by many to be a superstition of sorts, antithetical to science and free discussion. Because of this, ND knows it will never be fully accepted by the Ivy Leagues. It doesn't care.

It had to be a difficult thing for university president, Fr. John Jenkins, to have to sue the administration of the very U.S. president that caused so much controversy when invited to speak and get an honorary degree at the 2009 commencement. Yet, Notre Dame was one of the first institutions, along with the Archdiocese of New York, to announce its intention to file suit against the contraceptive mandate created by the Department of Health and Human Services. Notre Dame alumni are a diverse group--I'm certain that decision didn't come without controversy of its own.

Many mock the Catholic Church's stance on artificial birth control. The vast majority of married Catholic women defy the Church's rules and use contraceptives anyway. In the political climate of today, where televised ads featuring a not-so-subtle allusion to "the first time" are embraced by a presidential campaign, the Church is seen as hopelessly retro at best, and misogynist at worst.

By filing their suit, Notre Dame openly defied popular culture, as well as the norms of academia at large. The truth is, though, that they are defending their religious freedom--the ability to espouse moral values that may differ from what Kathleen Sebelius and the Institute of Medicine perceive as a woman's "right" to employer-funded artificial contraceptives, including the usage of abortifacient drugs.

Regardless of what one thinks of the Catholic stance on birth control, you have to give Notre Dame and the many other colleges and universities that are party to the HHS lawsuit credit for standing for something.

The notion of "marching down from the moral high ground" implies first that the university thinks it is somehow morally superior to everyone else, and also that something sinister has infected the university of Notre Dame. Neither are true.

Perhaps a classmate of mine put it best, "Success=Immorality. Where have we heard that before?"

Go Irish! Stand tall in your beliefs!