The culture of big-time organized football has always been -- and perhaps increasingly so in recent years -- "Man up." "Suck it up for the team." We hear "just do it" from a shoe company and that becomes a mantra stated by everyone involved in a sport that has become more and more violent. Players spear each other with helmets and it takes the threat of large fines and suspensions by the league to stop them from seriously injuring each other.
And a student at the University of Notre Dame, by all accounts a great kid who dreamed of being a filmmaker, dies while doing his job because no one had the sense to tell him not to stand on a rickety structure in a windstorm described by many as the strongest in the Midwest in 70 years. And why didn't this student just say no when asked to go onto that lift in 45+ mile per hour winds? No doubt, it was that same culture of fear that's drilled into the minds of every football player at that level. Suck it up. Do your job. Don't question.
Meanwhile, the presumably intelligent adults charged with keeping students (and the "student-athletes" who play) safe in such situations, make excuses and hide behind platitudes. Check out what ND athletic director Jack Swarbrick did, according to Chicago Sun-Times columnist Rick Telander:
Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said Thursday he didn't know who was responsible for allowing Sullivan's lift to be raised in the turbulent weather.
"People are being interviewed and asked those questions," the AD said, using the dulling and blame-scattering passive voice.
Swarbrick was at the practice field himself when Sullivan, a Notre Dame junior from Long Grove and a Carmel High School graduate, fell with the tower and was killed. Swarbrick said a huge gust of wind came up and caused the accident.
Really? Swarbrick was there? How could he not have felt the strong winds? Was he completely oblivious to the media reports that this storm was potentially dangerous? Were there absolutely no thoughts of safety at all?
And then there were the comments of ND coach Brian Kelly, which in their own way are even more mind-boggling:
"I made the decision that we could have a productive and safe practice outdoors," Kelly said Saturday at his news conference after Notre Dame's 28-27 loss to Tulsa. "Productive because the conditions ... although windy, were not unlike many days that I had practiced at other universities, including here at Notre Dame.
"We have systems in place to make certain and that deal with issues of safety. Clearly in this instance, they failed. We are in the process of examining all of those systems ...
"I can't emphasize enough how important it is that when you talk about taking your football team outside, those [safety-related] items are at the forefront of every coach's [thinking] -- not just me, not just at Notre Dame -- everybody in the country thinks about the same things. That's probably one area where we're all grappling with right now."
"Not unlike many days." That's your excuse, coach Kelly? You, too, ignored all the media reports that this storm wasn't "not unlike many days"? And it would appear from here that thinking like this isn't at "the forefront" of your mind. No, all that appears to be at the forefront of your mind is: put those players out there. Make them play in those conditions. Tough it out. Man up. Take one for the team. In fact, Kelly, after his starting quarterback Dayne Crist had to leave yesterday's game with a knee injury, praised his replacement Tommy Rees with the same kind of language:
"Awesome. Are you kidding me?" Kelly said with gusto. "I couldn't be more happy for the kid. True freshman going out there, hasn't played. He just competes. Took some hits, got right back up. He couldn't do everything we wanted to do. We've got to score more points. But I love the way the kid competed."
"Took some hits, got right back up." Said "with gusto." Unfortunately, in this case Declan Sullivan's "taking it" for the team resulted in his death. Was it really worth it, Jack Swarbrick? Was it really worth it, Brian Kelly? If you two are "grappling" with anything right now, it should be the win-at-all-costs mentality that pervades football at the college and pro levels. That mentality pervades all sports, true enough, but it seems more prevalent in football, with its warlike rules and terminologies: "territories" and "blitzes" and "bombs". Football can be an enjoyable game to play and watch, but its modern incarnation seems to chew up and spit out players by the hundreds. You're hurt? You've got a torn-up knee or a broken ankle or a concussion? Never mind, we've got five more eager "soldiers" lined up to take your place.
Jack Swarbrick and Brian Kelly should both be fired. And if Notre Dame wants to be at the "forefront" of anything, it should be at the front of the line of institutions that begin to examine the "win at all costs" mentality of big-time football.
Because the cost of a life is too much. Notre Dame is wearing "DS" decals on their helmets in memory of Declan Sullivan. That's a nice gesture, but what happens next year when the patches are gone and the memory of Sullivan and what happened fade in institutional memory? If Notre Dame would "man up" and do the right thing, perhaps the unnecessary death of Declan Sullivan can be the catalyst for meaningful change in big-time college football.