Keeping Score

March Sadness: A Student’s Death at Notre Dame

After the death of a student videographer during an October football practice, a government investigation shows that Notre Dame ignored safety rules. Where does the school go from here?

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Indiana Department of Labor / AP

The scene of the accident that killed Declan Sullivan while he filmed a Notre Dame football practice session on Oct. 27, 2010

Nothing brings out a person’s love for his or her school — whether it be an alma mater, local college or just a favorite team — quite like March Madness. But this week also gives us a reason to remember a young man whose passion for and devotion to his university’s team cost him far too much.

On March 14, the Indiana Occupational Safety and Health Administration (IOSHA) released findings from its nearly five-month investigation into the death of Declan Sullivan, a 20-year-old Notre Dame student who was fatally injured on Oct. 27 while filming a Notre Dame football practice session. Sullivan was taping the practice from a hydraulic scissor lift that toppled over because of high winds. The tragedy shook the Notre Dame campus, team and first-year coach Brian Kelly, who received criticism for allowing Sullivan to work from the lift on a day when winds topped 50 m.p.h. IOSHA fined Notre Dame $77,500, the largest penalty assessed against an Indiana university in at least five years. “The evidence overwhelmingly demonstrated that the university made a decision to utilize its scissor lifts in known adverse weather conditions,” said Lori Torres, the Indiana Department of Labor commissioner.

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Notre Dame took responsibility for the accident in the fall, but those words — “known adverse weather conditions” — spoken by a top government official will make the tragedy even harder to get over. Sullivan, who hailed from suburban Chicago, was paid $7.80 per hour to film practices. But more important, in Sullivan’s view, he earned a chance to contribute to one of the most storied institutions in all of sports, Notre Dame football. Sullivan sent out heartbreaking tweets before the accident. “Gust of wind up to 60mph will be fun at work … I guess I’ve lived long enough,” he wrote. He called the conditions “terrifying.” According to the IOSHA report, Sullivan expressed displeasure upon hearing that that day’s practice would be held outdoors. “Aw, man, this sucks,” he said.

At this point, the Sullivan tragedy can’t be all about the blame game. “We are grateful for the respect shown us over the past several months by everyone connected with Notre Dame,” the Sullivan family said in a statement after the findings were released. The Sullivans haven’t taken any legal action against the school. All parties involved have suffered enough pain. One disturbing element did emerge from the investigation, however. According to a Chicago Tribune review of the IOSHA documents, while Notre Dame permitted the agency to review the team’s practice video, the school did not turn over the tape because school attorneys said it contained “highly proprietary, trade-secret information related to the business of college sports.” (Asked about the report, a Notre Dame spokesman said in an e-mail that the university provided all practice video “in a manner that provided complete access to all of the information while maintaining the confidentiality of the material on the video.”)

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That’s just plain offensive. In the midst of a tragedy, Notre Dame is seriously worried that someone will see its plays or practice procedures?

I wonder if Notre Dame football can ever again be seen in the same revered, positive light. We often note how transgressions harm the good vibes an athlete or team provides fans. We say Mark McGwire tarnished his 1998 home-run record because of his steroid use. He did. But in the end, McGwire cheated only himself and perhaps his opponents. Notre Dame, according to an official government probe, played a role in the death of one of its students.

But this report, which got overlooked during this week’s March Madness hysteria, should encourage us to think about more important things than the future of Notre Dame. The report is a chance to never forget Sullivan. On those fall Tuesday afternoons, when so much seems at stake for the next big game, get those kids off those scissor lifts once there’s a wisp of wind. If schools can, they should ditch the lifts altogether and install remote cameras to film practice, as Notre Dame has pledged to do. Teach students what to do if things seem wobbly, so something like this never happens again.

And when you watch March Madness and see those college kids fetching towels, handing out water and unfolding chairs for the big men on campus — doing the little tasks that help the team they love — remember Sullivan. He was one of them. And he should be watching and cheering on his beloved Fighting Irish.

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