Notre Dame’s athletic director Jack Swarbrick has given a tearful account of how he has determined that his football star Manti Te’o was a victim of being “catfishes” in mourning the death of a girlfriend who never in fact existed. I must confess an insurmountable level of skepticism regarding Te’o's account, but I am more concerned not with his veracity (which seem entirely gone) but with the ethics of Notre Dame. Even without considering the Catholic values of the university, the response of the University to this matter is predictable and depressing given the known facts. We have previously discussed how football programs warp the academic mission and ethics of universities. This appears to be a towering example of the corrosive effect of such programs. Notre Dame admitted that it was made aware of the hoax but said nothing as reporters gushed over the bravery of Te’o in facing the death of the “love of his life.” Yet, the university insists that it had no obligation to tell the truth during the season while Te’o was being considered for the Heisman Trophy. Moreover, it concluded that Te’o had no ethical obligation to come forward immediately with the truth — even if we accept that he did not know that the “love of his life” did not exist.
Swarbrick’s position forgiving Te’o (and the university) of responsibility is most notable not only in the suspending of any notion of logic but any obligation of ethics. Let’s assume for a moment that Te’o never knew that his girlfriend did not exist despite the fact that he could never have actually met her. Indeed, while reporting that she died of cancer, he never appears to have gone to “the love of his life” in person. The university admits that he told them during the season that it was a hoax. Yet, he and Notre Dame remained silent as published accounts discussed how he met her at a football game and poured sympathy on his loss and that of his grandmother on the same day. It was the biggest personal story in the college football season. It was a story that clearly would have helped in the competition for the Heisman Trophy — a huge benefit for both the player and the school. This is not some collateral fact or something subject to interpretation. It was the core of a national sensational story and it was entirely untrue.
Yet Swarbrick expressed only shock of the “casual cruelty” shown by the hoaxsters saying “they enjoyed the joke.” Perhaps, but Notre Dame enjoyed the attention generated by the story –after they learned it was a lie.
Notre Dame emphasizes that students must meet high ethical standards as part of their education.
However, when the student is your football star, the University appears to believe that failing to come forward to admit the truth is not an unethical act for either the student or university officials. Notably, the student gave interviews of how his girlfriend was the most beautiful person he “ever met” and not just “her physical beauty.” His interviews fueled a frenzy among reporters who did countless pieces on the terrible loss. The tearful account of Swarbrick brushed over the period where he admits that the university knew the truth and did nothing. Swarbricks’ insistence that they made the decision that this was Te’o “story to be told.” That is highly convenient for the university and notably jettisons any responsibility to stop the lie from being repeated and replicated.
As an academic, I view the position of the university to be reprehensible and devoid of any ethical content. It tells students that there is no obligation to come forward when you know of such a falsity and that there is no institutional or personal responsibility for acts of omission. This is not simply a betrayal of Catholic value it is a betrayal of core academic values in my view.
What do you think?