What Will Notre Dame Tragedy Cost the School? Who Will Get Fired?


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At the end of the day Friday, Notre Dame released a public statement that was both surprising and expected at the same time. When you have terrible news to disseminate to the public, you always do it at 5pm on a Friday; it’s a cardinal rule of media relations. And as expected, ND admitted fault in the tragic death of student videographer Declan Sullivan. What was somewhat unexpected though was the vote of confidence to Head Coach Brian Kelly.

On the other hand, if ND is going to let Kelly go over this, it’s more advantageous to do it after the season instead of during the midst of it.

One thing’s for sure, after the investigation completes, the school could be paying out millions of dollars in damages, and people high up within college football’s most visible program, including Kelly and perhaps even Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick, could pay with their jobs.

By Paul M. Banks

A must-read piece from Forbes.com assesses what the school might end up paying in compensatory damages. Here’s an excerpt:

If found guilty of negligent behavior and if the degree of fault rests predominantly in the university’s lap, Notre Dame could face compensatory damages in the $15M to $20M range in the aftermath of Declan Sullivan’s tragic death.  And if punitive damages are also levied upon the university, the price tag associated with Mr. Sullivan’s passing could increase by an additional $45M-$60M if penalized to the maximum allowable amount under Indiana law.

By the time the article exhausts each possibility, the author estimates the school will end up paying out $30 million. Is that enough to cost Brian Kelly his job? What about his boss, A.D. Swarbrick, can he save his job by making Kelly a casualty? Or does the Captain also go down with the ship?

In pretty much any line of work, if you cost your employer $30 million…you are very likely out the door.

But I understand why they gave Kelly a vote of confidence. They’re dealing with the crisis of crises right now and (please pardon the bromides) “changing horses midstream” helps no one because in “full crisis mode” it’s “better the devil you know.”

Besides, given their remaining schedule and the phantasmagoria of injuries the Irish have suffered at their skill position personnel (Crist, Rudolph, Allen done for season, Riddick and Floyd have missed a couple games) this fall, it looks very unlikely ND makes a bowl, and the season from the eighth concentric circle of hell will mercifully be over in three short weeks and change.

December is the time to consider Kelly’s replacement, not now. There are other matters to attend to currently. Like where fault lies. Sullivan is not absolved of accountability. However, it’s difficult to place any further accountability on him because he has already paid the ultimate price by giving his life to do his job.

As sad, tragic and unfair as it is, we must remember that when you’re 18, society deems you mature and experienced  enough to vote, go off to war, operate a vehicle that harnesses the power of life and death and be tried in court as an adult. Sullivan was 20, and he was no average 20-year-old, he was a bright kid from a good family.

Getting back to the Forbes piece

But just as you could conclude that it would have been reasonable for Mr. Sullivan to voluntarily seek shelter in light of his concerns, you could also argue that it would have been similarly reasonable for any one of the numerous on-site adults (e.g. coaches, administrators, facility staff) to approach Mr. Sullivan and mandate that he cease his elevated videography services due to inclimate weather for safety’s sake.

The reality is that most 20-year old employees of major Division I college football programs work in awe or fear (or both) of their coaching staffs and/or student-athlete peers.  They are simply dedicated workers who show their school spirit by taking great pride in their job.  As such, they are not likely to voluntarily ’sit one out’ unless approached by an adult who supposedly has a better grasp on the ‘big picture’ and who can play a nurturing and protective parental role when faced with adversity or unfamiliar circumstances.

That’s true, most AV types I’ve met are about as gung ho in doing their work as linemen are in crushing opposing linemen. And this accidental death occurred within organized football, a ridiculously militaristic environment that regiments obedience to the chain of command. I’ve played organized football (not very well mind you, but regardless I’ve lived this) and the values of machismso and “toughing it out” are sometimes stressed over safety. Yes, prioritizing perceived manliness above basic survival instincts is absurd and backward, but it does happen.

Obviously, the investigation will determine whose call it was for Sullivan to get into that tower, how serious we are to take the hauntingly macabre tweets he made that now read like something Stephen King would compose, and most importantly where negligence lies.

When it’s all over, will this wrongful death be enough to permanently damage the fortunes of the program? If Kelly is found to be negligent yet also allowed to stay will that be enough to inflict longstanding damage on Notre Dame football?

There are a lot of big existential questions left to be asked– and answered.

Paul M. Banks is CEO of The Sports Bank.net , a Midwest webzine. He’s also a regular contributor to the Tribune’s Chicago Now network, Walter Football.com, Yardbarker Network, and Fox Sports.com

You can follow him on Twitter @thesportsbank

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