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Catholics vs. Criminals Revisited: Arrests Give Notre Dame ‘Come to Touchdown Jesus’ Moment

Every year since he arrived at Notre Dame in 2010, head football coach Brian Kelly has worked hard to win the national championship – and every year something happens.

This year it happened early.

Last Saturday, police arrested six Notre Dame football players in two separate incidents for criminal conduct including illegal possession of a loaded weapon, battery on a police officer, resisting law enforcement, and illegal drug possession. The team immediately removed two players, while the fate of the other four remains in limbo.

Old timers at Notre Dame would wryly observe that “boys will be boys,” but year after year, a number of Coach Kelly’s players have been sidelined not only for “routine” academic violations, but some serious felonies (starting quarterback Tommy Reese was arrested in 2012 for battery on a police officer, and last Saturday senior cornerback Devon Butler was arrested for assaulting a policeman at a bar near campus).

Kelly’s first season was especially tough. In October, he allowed Declan Sullivan, a student videographer, to film practice from a scissor-lift in spite of winds approaching 60 mph. Sullivan fell to his death, and, after an investigation by the Indiana Occupational Health and Safety Administration, the state fined the university $77,500. After repeated media inquiries, University President John Jenkins, C.S.C., finally issued a statement. “We failed to keep him safe,” he wrote, “and for that we remain profoundly sorry.”

The most troubling case, however, began a month earlier, when Lizzy Seeberg, a freshman at Saint Mary’s College (across the street from Notre Dame), reported to Notre Dame’s campus police that she had been sexually assaulted in a campus dorm by a member of the football team. The campus cops, in what can only be called manifest malfeasance, dropped the ball. Finally, nine days after the incident, Lizzy committed suicide.

Campus police didn’t even interview her alleged assailant until after Lizzy’s death. (The player’s lawyer later said the contact was “consensual” and that the player acted like “a perfect gentleman.”) Father Jenkins stonewalled her parents, and the university refused to turn over the file on the case – what there was of it – to the district attorney until November, after Lizzy’s family hired a former U.S attorney to look into the case.

By that time, of course, since the witness had died, no criminal case was brought.

Several years later, Lizzy’s father told the Chicago Tribune that “the university and police more aggressively investigated the 2012 case of linebacker Manti Te’o’s fictitious girlfriend than that of his dead daughter.”

Citing federal privacy law, Father Jenkins has never expressed any condolences, much less an apology, to Lizzy’s family.

The accused player was drafted by the Atlanta Falcons. After his first season, however, he was immediately put on waivers after he was charged with felony animal cruelty for killing his girlfriend’s Yorkshire Terrier.

Notre Dame has now begun a $400 million upgrade to the football stadium, with 3,000 new “premium” seats expected to bring in some $200 million, a university development officer tells me. The stadium will become the new “Crossroads” of the campus, replacing Sacred Heart Basilica (where this author was baptized the same year that the undefeated Irish won a national championship under coach Frank Leahy). The school’s multimillion dollar football contract with NBC has been extended through 2025, and Kelly’s contract was just renewed for six more years.

For Father Jenkins, football is a major university asset – football and politics, that is. President Obama’s controversial starring role at Notre Dame’s 2009 commencement brought the school tens of millions in federal taxpayer grants. Although Notre Dame still calls itself a Catholic school, Father Jenkins defied his local bishop by awarding the coveted Laetare Medal to Vice President Joe Biden this past May.

Nostalgic Irish fans regard Notre Dame’s 31-30 victory over Miami in 1988 as the most memorable home game ever. That weekend featured the famous sale of “Catholics vs. Convicts” t-shirts on the campus, mocking the inordinate number of Miami players enduring issues with the law that year.

This fall they won’t be a hot item.

Lou Holtz’s 1988 team went on to win the national championship, and the Fighting Irish haven’t won one since. Father Jenkins is betting that football is key to Notre Dame’s future.But the six arrests last weekend have even ardent fans wondering.

“Remember when all we had to worry about was quarterbacks,” writes the South Bend Tribune’s Al Lesar. “Saturday’s news shows that something has gone astray somewhere.”

The author earned three degrees from Notre Dame and was awarded the prize named after university president Father Ted Hesburgh in 1968.

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