manti-teo-01-07-2013By now you’ve probably heard about the biggest culture story of the day: the girlfriend of Notre Dame football linebacker Manti Te’o has been revealed to be a hoax. She never existed.

The incident casts doubt on another once-proud American institution, Notre Dame University, and its vaunted football program. It seems the nation’s respected institutions are crashing down like houses of cards lately.

Te’o says that he was taken in by a “catfish” scheme, in which a person or persons lure another individual into an online romance with an entirely fictional, nonexistent person. Apparently the idea is to embarrass the other person, and of course the assertion of power over one’s victim is another likely motive. Perhaps there are others in such cases and this one as well: blackmail would seem a good possibility.

According to the evidence we have so far, it is possible that Te’o was indeed taken in by such a scheme in the present case. It is also quite tempting to think that he willingly participated in the deception, given the rather strange circumstances and odd contradictions in his story and the timeline of events. See articles here, here, and here for more on that.

That’s all we need to know, says one of the Deadspin writers, as quoted in USA Today:

“We know it’s a hoax… The only question out there is exactly what Manti knew about it,” Timothy Burke, one of the authors of the piece on Deadspin, said during an appearance Wednesday on CBS Radio.

That’s not true, however. Also implicated in this bizarre series of events is Notre Dame University, in particular the university’s athletics director, Jack Swarbrick. Notre Dame has only recently rejoined the top echelon of the nation’s college football powerhouses, and Swarbrick has been at the forefront of the institution’s efforts to downplay and hush up a variety of scandals and preventable disasters in recent months. Nothing was allowed to interfere in the story of the football team’s championship run.

Most egregious, in my view, was the university’s morally inadequate and blatantly cowardly and self-serving handling of the obviously preventable death of student assistant Declan Sullivan caused by the toppling of a scissor lift while recording video of a football practice in a gale, and the circumstances surrounding the suicide of nearby St. Mary’s College first-year student Elizabeth Seeberg after she reported to the campus police that she had been raped by a Notre Dame football player.

Certainly individuals with any class whatsoever—and the necessary courage to stand up and do the honorable thing in the face of potential negligence lawsuits—would have made sure that the ND football team dedicated their national championship run to Sullivan, with a moment of silence before every home game, patches with his initials on their uniforms, and other such tributes to the death of a passionate fan of the team.

Similar gestures to remember the outrageous treatment of Lizzy Seeberg were also called for. Given that Seeburg was not an assistant with the team and her death prevented any proof of a Notre Dame football player having raped her, less acknowledgment than of Sullivan’s death would have been understandable—but sweeping it under the rug and hoping everyone will forget looks thoroughly dishonorable.

Chicago Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf had his team wear patches bearing the initials of his longtime assistant, after she died of cancer, and he named the team’s practice facility after her. That was the example for Notre Dame to follow, not President Nixon’s response to the Watergate revelations, the Obama administration’s attempts to avoid blame for the Benghazi terror attacks, or Penn State’s cover-up of former coach Jerry Sandusky’s sexual assaults of young boys in the university’s sports facilities.

The blood of Sullivan and Seeberg cries out from the ground in South Bend, and Swarbrick and O’Brien should have made sure that the proper tributes were paid, regardless of the consequences, or resigned their jobs. Honor demanded that.

Many in the press are already hotly seeking answers to the question of what Te’o knew and when he knew it, and Te’o is in for a world of grief and embarrassment regardless of what may be unearthed. (Some are especially eager to identify Te’o as a homosexual. He would be the first active Division 1 or NFL football player so identified, which would go a long way toward fully legitimizing homosexuality among those who still resist political correctness, the thinking goes.)

To me, however, the most interesting question will prove to be what Swarbrick and O’Brien knew and when they knew it. Te’o now says he found out about the hoax on December 6, but he is reported to have talked about his girlfriend to Chicago Tribune reporter Brian Hamilton two days later. Similarly, Notre Dame says that it conducted an investigation of the matter between December 26 and January 4, conveniently failing to complete the investigation until after the BCS national championship game. And then the story still stayed under cover until Deadspin broke it this morning.

The nation’s media also seem complicit in the cover-up or appalling lazy or both, given that this obviously juicy story went unreported for nearly two weeks after Notre Dame supposedly concluded its examination. Where was ESPN when all of this was being dredged up? The local press in South Bend and even the police in that city likewise seem to have been unduly attentive to the university’s interests, to say the least, in the matters that have come to light in the past year.

There may be perfectly good explanations of all this, revelations indicating that it’s all just a big misunderstanding and that everybody but the evil “catfish” purveyors acted with the best intentions and great honor. Such a scenario, however, already seems exceedingly unlikely, here on the first day of the scandal. Notre Dame’s actions in this and other incidents throughout the past year bring its integrity into question, and another major American institution appears to have feet of clay.

Corruption among a nation’s authorities can undermine public confidence rapidly. And this is happening at a time when public confidence is already at a low ebb. One begins to wonder: How low can we go?