The Real Invisible Women: A Look At Te’o And Campus Rape Culture
Unless you have been living underground the past two days, you've heard about Manti Te’o, the famed Notre Dame football player who allegedly created a girlfriend from thin air. Now, it's certainly hard to ignore a player who creates an imaginary girlfriend then uses her serious car accident, leukemia diagnosis, and tragic passing to curry favor and good press. Still, an inordinate amount of time, column inches, ink and paper have been set aside to talk about this elaborate hoax and the case of “the invisible woman."
There is no denying that this makes for what journalists would call “good copy,” but Salon drew our attention to a story that is not being told:
Less than a day into the Manti Te’o revelations, we’ve heard more about a fake dead girlfriend of a Notre Dame football player than a real dead girl. Lizzy Seeberg committed suicide, not long after being intimidated by Notre Dame football players for reporting a sexual assault by one of their teammates. A second woman who was taken to the hospital for a rape exam declined to formally accuse another Notre Dame football player after getting a series of bullying texts from players.
This is hardly new territory for the storied Notre Dame football program. Two years ago, Dave Zirin wrote a story for The Nation calling the program "a moral cesspool." And they have not shied away from backing Te'o even as they turn a blind eye to the plight of Lizzy Seeberg and other young women like her. Zirin writes in a piece from this week:
Within hours of the story breaking online, Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick held a press conference where he backed Te’o to the hilt saying, 'Every single thing about this was real to Manti. There was no suspicion. The grief was real, the affection was real, and that’s the sad nature of this cruel game.' Swarbrick revealed that a private outside firm had been hired to investigate just who had perpetrated this 'cruel game.' The athletic director even cried. …
It says so much that Te’o’s bizarre soap opera has moved Swarbrick to openly weeping but he hasn’t spared one tear, let alone held one press conference, for Lizzy Seeberg, the young woman who took her own life after coming forward with allegations that a member of the team sexually assaulted her.
According to the American Federation of Suicide Prevention, more than 4,000 people between the ages of 15 and 24 die by suicide each year in the United States. It's all but assured that their tragedies won't reach the level of media saturation that Manti Te’o’s imaginary girlfriend’s loss of life did. The organization One in Four reports that one in four college women report surviving rape and, while not all of those instances end as tragically as Lizzy Seeberg’s did, it is still an unbelievable horror that no woman should have to experience.
The only way to prevent suicide, the only way to reduce the number of rapes occurring on our college campuses, is to draw attention to the problem. We need the cooperation of students, law enforcement officials, and yes, the media. Telling the story of Lizzy Seeberg could spread the word about the warning signs of suicide and the tragic consequences of bullying. It could prevent a future tragedy. What does the ceaseless news about Manti Te’o do other than reduce the draft stock and question the stability of a once seemingly promising NFL prospect?
The story of Lizzy Seeberg deserves to be told as often and as loudly as Manti Te’o’s. Who are we to assign less value to her life than we do to a life that Te’O reportedly created out of thin air? As Salon points out, Lizzy Seeberg was not alone in her situation and it is the rape culture that exists in locker rooms and campuses across the country that contributes to these horrific acts and unacceptable cover-ups:
The sexual assault of women can and is often explained away—including the Notre Dame donor who justified his continued support to Henneberger by saying that Seeberg had been sexually aggressive, that “she was all over the boy.” In other words, it’s not just the players who are banding together around their brothers whether they’re rapists or not; it’s the adults around them who are turning a blind eye because they consider other things are more important. And they’re willing to believe anything except that these nice boys can be rapists.
Down the road, a capable agent and PR team will try to rehabilitate Manti Te’o's image; they'll probably even succeed. After all, Americans have unbelievably short attention spans and poor memories when it comes to these sorts of things. All it will take is another celebrity to slip up and, suddenly, Te'o will be off the hook.
But where we cannot afford a short attention span is when it comes to combating the epidemics of rape and suicide in our culture and on our campuses. The lives that are being forever changed—or, tragically, forever lost—are simply too important to let the “story of the day” crowd them out.
Marc Peters is a reporter at Campus Progress.You can follow Marc on Twitter at @rippleofhope.