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April 20, 2011
Notre Dame president Rev. John I. Jenkins wore the look of sadness and remorse that we first saw the day after the tragedy. He sprinkled in references to the courage of Declan Sullivan's family, and vowed a lifelong commitment to safety issues, not only on the Notre Dame campus, but at universities throughout the country.
But no matter what Jenkins and other representatives of the University say and do, nothing can fully change the perception that several people involved in the process - including head football coach Brian Kelly - were negligent in the death of Sullivan, a student videographer for the football program.
Jenkins fell on the sword again Monday when he, executive vice present John Affleck-Graves, vice president and athletics director Jack Swarbrick, Kelly and others who assisted with the internal investigation met with the media to share their findings and once again take responsibility for the tragic death of a Notre Dame student who fell from an aerial lift amidst winds that exceeded 50 miles per hour on Oct. 27, 2010.
"The University is collectively responsible," Jenkins said. "Insofar as the president is responsible for the university as a whole, I am the individual who bears the greatest responsibility, and I accept that responsibility.
"I want to express again to the Sullivan family a profound sorrow for the loss of Declan. The Sullivans entrusted Declan to our care and we failed to keep him safe. We will live with that for the rest of our lives."
Affleck-Graves later gave a recap as to how the day transpired at Notre Dame, citing eight instances in which the weather/wind conditions were monitored from a little after 9 a.m. right up to the start of football practice some six hours later. The conclusion of the study, which lasted nearly six months, cited that no one individual could be held responsible for the accident.
"In the grief and distress that follows a tragic accident, it is common to seek the individual or the individuals responsible and assign blame," Jenkins said. "After a thorough and painstaking study in which numerous university personnel were interviewed and external experts consulted, we have reached the conclusion that no one acted in disregard for safety.
"Each individual based his decisions and actions that day on the best information available at the time and in accord with the procedures that were in place."
What? No sacrificial lambs? Surely Notre Dame could offer up director of football operations Chad Klunder or a video coordinator Tim Collins or a head trainer Jim Russ, at least for appearances. Fire somebody! That provides the proper appearances.
While such actions make for a good show and a further sign of grief for the tragically departed, ultimately, it changes absolutely nothing, from Kelly on down. Sullivan is gone. The people who failed to wave a red flag or offer a solution to an impending catastrophe will be haunted by their indecision for the rest of their lives.
Clearly, Sullivan died due to negligent behavior, albeit unconscious negligent behavior. The particular aerial lift used by Sullivan that day was extended too high in winds too strong to keep it grounded. Neither Sullivan nor his fellow videographers were properly trained on the equipment he operated, and the chain of command had several links missing, including the equipment to periodically monitor the wind velocity throughout the actual practice session.
Eight times the wind was checked before the start of practice. That meant that the aerial lift that was sitting dormant during the six-hour span without a human affixed atop the device was perfectly safe. Yet during the two-hour span that encompassed the practice - when Sullivan's life was in jeopardy - the wind speed was not monitored.
Ultimately, what purpose did it serve to check the wind speed when the aerial lift was not in use and then abandon the safety checks when someone's life might actually be in danger? None, of course, but University personnel were not thinking about the life of a videographer being in danger during the weather checks. They were monitoring whether that day's football practice would be productive amidst the high winds.
Of course, all the evidence that we consider is tainted by the fact that the aerial lift upon which Sullivan lost his life actually did tip over and kill him. We can't consider any action by University personnel without the knowledge that a human life was lost in the process, and that skewed vantage point makes all that we consider with this tragedy flawed and skewed.
To say that Notre Dame shouldn't have practiced outside because it was too windy is to assume that the thought process included the actual anticipation of an aerial lift tipping over. It all seems so easy to understand, so crystal clear to anticipate in the aftermath. But a lot of intelligent, wise people didn't consider the possibility.
Notre Dame's critics claim negligence and want heads to roll. It is the burden of leadership after all. It's the American way. People lose their jobs as a result of their actions that lead directly to tragedy. Yet those who may have had a say in a decision that would have prevented Sullivan's death didn't resign in the aftermath of the tragedy.
The grief of contributing to the loss of a life isn't enough. Some want them to suffer lifelong consequences of monetary hardship and effectively put an end to their employment in the capacity in which they serve.
Brian Kelly, the argument goes, should spend the rest of his working life doing studio analyst work as a result of his failure to prevent Sullivan's death. Jack Swarbrick should be forced to return to law in Indianapolis, and Rev. Jenkins should be put out to pasture with the rest of the clergy past its prime.
That would make the critics happy. That would put the "sanctimonious University of Notre Dame" in its place. That would make those who spend their lives passing judgment on others happy and content. That would be a fitting conclusion to this tragedy. But in the grand scheme of things, it wouldn't change a thing.
Why didn't common sense prevail that windy day in late October in northern Indiana? Some would prefer to paint a picture of a football factory pushing forward at all costs, risking the lives of innocent young men and women all in the name of preparing to win a football game against Tulsa following an unexpected, one-sided loss to Navy.
In fact, it was simply a football program moving forward in a season, unsuspecting that the worst could/would happen to a anonymous, bit player in the big picture of preparing for a football game.
What is common sense before a tragedy occurs? In this instance, a too easy second-guess. Notre Dame is defenseless when it comes to justifying its actions. It cannot come up with an acceptable explanation in light of Sullivan's death, other than a lack of preparedness and foresight. If only Sullivan had survived what proved to be a fatal fall. If only Notre Dame could get a do-over, it would do the right thing, just as anyone thrust into this unfortunate set of circumstances would do.
Surely, no one at Notre Dame or any other school consciously puts a person's life in jeopardy. There probably wasn't one person on the LaBar Practice Complex field that day that envisioned Sullivan's aerial lift tipping over. Well, apparently Sullivan did, as evidenced by his tweets. But he chose not to come down from the tower, due at least in part to his responsibility to the program, which made clear that he could come down if he felt he was in danger.
It's so easy on the outside looking in to pass judgment, as if Notre Dame personnel said, 'I don't care how windy it is up there! Keep the video rolling!' No, it was just people doing their job, preparing the best way they knew how in the aftermath of another loss to Navy. It proved to be a flawed performance of their duties.
Perhaps it would be better, however, if Kelly were surrounded by people who aren't afraid to step forward and provide him with information/advice at the risk of getting a negative reaction. Did that play a role in this tragedy? Perhaps Notre Dame would be better served surrounding Kelly with people who tell him what he needs to hear instead of what he wants to hear. But that is mere speculation like all the rest.
Notre Dame should not be exonerated for its actions. But those who sit in judgment after the fact are claiming wisdom from a pulpit of ignorance themselves. They do not know how they would have reacted without the biased knowledge they carry with them because of the Sullivan tragedy.
Life isn't always fair, and bad things happen to hard-working, well-intentioned people whose focus is on the matter at hand, which in this instance, was picking up the pieces following a devastating loss to Navy. If Saturday's game against Tulsa had been wind-swept and Notre Dame hadn't prepare for those conditions during the week, Kelly and his staff would have been chastised for a lack of foresight as it pertained to the team's preparation.
Sometimes an act of God reveals the shortcomings of the human mind, not the actual intentions of those in a position to make decisions that ultimately lead to a tragedy. No one would have allowed Sullivan to sway in the northern Indiana winds if they actually had considered the very real possibility of that aerial lift tipping over that day.
We should all be as wise as those who think they would have made the right decision if placed in the position to alter the outcome of that day. Likewise, we should all be thankful that we do not have to bear the burden that will haunt Jenkins, Swarbrick and Kelly, among others, for the rest of their lives.
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