There is danger of a new Notre Dame mystique
Todd David Whitmore
The Common Good
The Sunday South Bend Tribune reported that there have been seven allegations of rape against Notre Dame football players since 1998. Kathy Redmond, the director of the National Coalition Against Violent Athletes, comments, "I receive more calls from students regarding Notre Dame than any other school in the country. I feel like I am always dealing with Notre Dame in one way or another."
Female students regularly report to me that the football team has a "reputation" for having a disproportionate number of players who are sexually violent. David Haugh of the South Bend Tribune did the calculation on the allegations. It's one out of every 12.4 football players recruited, "an average of nearly one accused rapist per huddle." If the national average of 87 percent of rapes going unreported also applies to Notre Dame, then the situation is even worse.
Some of the fallout from the most recent case has been evident in letters to The Observer. One student writes that she believes the woman. Others write to chastise her for being too quick to judge.
Here, it might be helpful to distinguish between legal guilt and whether the charged actually committed the crime. During the O.J. Simpson trial, for instance, one view during the trial was that he did commit murder but would be judged not guilty because of the level of burden of proof necessary to obtain conviction.
Those believing the woman in the most recent Notre Dame case need to be aware of the gap between the level of evidence required for such a belief and the level of evidence needed for legal conviction.
Those who wish to withhold all judgment until legal judgment is reached need to be aware of the social and legal matrix of rape that functions to make the rate of conviction far lower than the rate of incidence. To stop one's critical thinking at the question of legal conviction is to court a not-so-benign naivete.
Rape is, in some respects, an even harder case than murder to convict. The state of Illinois, which is reconsidering the death penalty because of the large number of false convictions, still allows a murder conviction based on a single eyewitness. With rape, it is still considered a matter of he-said/she-said when there is no further evidence. The testimony of the primary witness to the crime is not sufficient for conviction.
It is sometimes cautioned that the woman, out of anger or spite, might be seeking to trap the man, but one reported statistic is worth noting: Only one percent of rape charges are false reports. If this statistic bears up, then in cases where there is no mistaken identity regarding who is the rapist, the total for misreports remains at one percent. In the seven cases of alleged rape involving Notre Dame football players, the women making the charges knew the players.
The University has not been inactive in responding to the problem of sexual violence. The Student Development program for student-athletes includes a "Men Against Violence" workshop, a workshop that the University would do well to require of all students. The University also provides resources for women who have been sexually assaulted. Moreover, Notre Dame is far from alone among universities for having problems with athletes and others in their academic community being sexually violent.
Having one out of every 12.4 football players accused of rape means that 11.4 out of 12.4 have not been so accused, and this should not be forgotten. Still, seven cases, particularly with the low rate of misreports with rape generally, is far too many to set aside as isolated incidents.
If what Kathy Redmond tells us about Notre Dame being the most frequently reported school in her conversations is correct, then the "reputation" regarding its football players has moved beyond the concerns of a certain number of female students at the University. There is now national attention. There are dangers of this becoming Notre Dame's new mystique, something that is difficult to pin down with exact quantitative precision but has enough verifiable truth to sustain the reputation.
What specific steps to take in order to reduce the incidence of sexual violence on campus is not a straightforward proposition. The best thing for the University to do is to gather the widest possible range of interested parties for conversations whose aims are at once reflective and policy-oriented. Such conversations need to be reflective, not least because even good policy decisions will not be sufficient. It will be important also to ask what there might be in the national and in the University's culture that sustains attitudes that contribute to sexual violence.
Todd David Whitmore is an associate professor of theology and the director of the Program in Catholic Social Tradition. His column appears every other Thursday. He can be contacted at Whitmore.firstname.lastname@example.org.
The views expressed in this column represent those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.
All Viewpoint Stories for Thursday, April 25, 2002