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13 Years After Lizzy Seeberg, Going Up Against College Football Remains A Fraught Idea

A general view of Spartan Stadium during the game between Notre Dame and Michigan State Spartans on September 23, 2017 in East Lansing, Michigan. The stadium is packed.
Leon Halip/Getty Images

Lizzy Seeberg died by suicide on Sept. 10, 2010. Her death came less than two weeks after the St. Mary's College student reported to Notre Dame campus police that a football player had sexually assaulted her. Hours after that night in a dorm room, Seeberg told a friend, her therapist, and wrote down a statement about what happened but, 10 days later, officers still hadn't even interviewed the football player. Perhaps most ominous was the player's friend, who texted her, "Don't do anything you would regret. Messing with Notre Dame football is a bad idea." 

Even in death, the prestigious Catholic university still found ways to attack Seeberg. As Melinda Henneberger's report detailed in 2012 in the National Catholic Reporter: "Tom Seeberg said that a number of friends have reported that even at his daughter's funeral, and ever since, 'they had been approached by friends and family members of a long-serving [Notre Dame] trustee' with stories writing Lizzy off as 'a troubled girl' who had 'done this before' and who had concocted a tale the university was simply too decent to publicly refute."

Other slights were delivered far more publicly.

Like when the Chicago Tribune broke the story of Seeberg's death and, on a subsequent conference call with reporters, Henneberger wrote that then-head football coach Brian Kelly "wisecracked on a conference call with sportswriters that he didn't know the Tribune could afford all the reporters who were peppering him with questions about the case." The school's president told a local newspaper that "discrepancies" between what Seeberg wrote down and what she later told police were why it took campus police 15 days to interview the player.

Seeberg's death did lead to change. The U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights investigated the university, and the institution agreed to make changes to how it responded to reports of sexual assault. Not even a year later, the federal government issued guidance telling universities they all had to seriously investigate and work to prevent sexual violence (a move rescinded by the following administration). And yet it was not lost on me, and I know on others as well, that on the anniversary of her death this year the biggest story in college football was a report that Michigan State's head football coach, Mel Tucker, coach was under investigation after an anti-rape advocate reported that he had sexually harassed her, including masturbating without her consent during a phone call.

Since the news broke over the weekend, what's followed has been a lot of statements. First went Tucker, who on Monday issued a nearly two-page long statement. He called what anti-rape advocate Brenda Tracy said "completely false." He called the investigation so far "devoid of any semblance of fairness." He called the university's hearing, which hasn't happened yet as it's scheduled for early October, "so flawed that there is no other opportunity for the truth to come out." And that's only the first paragraph from Tucker, who has a 10-year, $95 million contract with Michigan State.

Tucker reiterated in his statement that what happened between him and Tracy was consensual. He added that he was "unaware" of "the previous negative comments that she had made about iconic MSU coaches, then-President Engler, MSU in general, and even her more recent criticism of [Michigan coach Jim] Harbaugh." (When asked for comment, Harbaugh said he didn't know a thing about what led to Tucker's suspension but praised Tracy, saying he respect her a lot and "she's done really good things.")

Tucker said the discussion the night that Tracy said she was harassed was initiated by Tracy herself, and she never objected during the phone call nor hung up the phone. He added that a later visit planned for Tracy to Michigan State wasn't canceled, just postponed. He again referenced the upcoming hearing and called it a sham. He said Tracy's lawyer told him that she didn't want him fired, soon followed by the claim that Tracy was out to destroy his life. He ended the statement by asking everyone to "reserve judgement until the full truth comes out."

The same day, hours later, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer also issued a statement saying she was shocked and disappointed. "I want answers," she said.

The next day, Tracy's lawyer, Karen Truszkowski, issued a statement. It said that Tracy didn't intend to disclose her identity while the Michigan State process played out, but an "outside party" gave Tracy's name to local media. She said her client "had no intention of disclosing anything publicly until someone else violated her right to confidentiality."

Hours later, Tracy herself issued a statement. In it, Tracy reiterated what her lawyer said: She didn't want to go public until the process was done. She did add that, as the investigation went on, she grew concerned about defending herself, so she provided documents to USA Today "so that my story could be written about and published after the conclusion of the school process, but also just in case my name leaked—which it did."

And there were still more statements to go. On Wednesday, Michigan State trustee Dianne Byrum issued her own statement, calling for a university investigation into who leaked Tracy's name.

As far away as it might feel, as much as Seeberg's unnecessary death has faded from the public memory, progress has happened. It's far more common for someone to hear the name Title IX—the federal law that prohibits discrimination in education based on sex—and not just think of it as the reason girls get to play sports. Universities are mandated to have entire apparatuses handling reports of sexual assault, harassment, and intimate-partner violence. There is an entire bureaucracy built around Title IX now, with layers of government, lawyers, investigators, public speakers, outside experts, and contractors.

There's a difference between bureaucracy and meaningful change, though the first is often dressed up as the latter. I am not so cynical as to think nothing has changed since September of 2010. The idea of reporting sexual assault to your university when I was in college and expecting any sort of meaningful response was laughable, whether or not it involved a football player. That there is now an expectation of one—with legal remedies if that doesn't happen—is remarkable. But I am not so naive as to think the work of meaningful change is done, either. If it were, we would not be here, again, with a new form of the same old public discourse: A woman on one side, and a football team and their supporters on the other.

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