Death of Notre Dame student Declan Sullivan punctures the myopic world of big-time college sports

By Mike Wise
Thursday, October 28, 2010; 11:44 PM

The harmful by-product of big-time sports is the myopia required of those intimately involved. To compete at the elite level requires an entire network of people -- athletes, coaches, trainers, support personnel -- to all subscribe to the same skewed belief system: that what they do in the field of competition actually has some larger, intrinsic value beyond winning a game, meeting a profit margin or padding a university's coffers.

When you work and live around others who only know how to live and work that way, the grand scheme gets shoved aside.

And the only times these people are driven from their cocoons is when reality in the form of tragedy punctures the walls. Declan Sullivan died Wednesday afternoon when the automatic lift that had him high off the ground collapsed amid the 51-mph wind gusts in South Bend, Ind. He was up there in those conditions because his job was to film Notre Dame football practice.

Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick, who was at practice Wednesday and saw the wind turn Gatorade containers into debris before Sullivan's fatal fall, promised a full investigation. But he wouldn't say who was responsible or why a 20-year-old student worker was hydraulically raised 36 feet in the sky in high winds just so Brian Kelly and his staff could have video of practice leading up to Saturday's game against Tulsa.

The facts revealed in coming weeks and months - whether Sullivan's family sues Notre Dame and/or the makers of the lift - almost obscure the real culprit: a severely misguided sports culture. Because of these skewed priorities, no one in authority - not Swarbrick, not Kelly, not his assistants or Sullivan's immediate supervisor, the video coordinator - bothered to at least ask, "Do we really need that kid up there with a camera in this crazy weather?"

Does it really matter whether anyone told him to go up there when we clearly know that no one told him to stay down?

When you live and work in Warped Sports World, your peer group encourages abnormal thinking. Not in ways that specifically lead to tragedy. Yet when you don't have a lot of interaction with people that don't share your over-the-top feelings about your job and what it means, attitudes develop that influence what you think matters and what you think doesn't.

For instance, if you were days removed from losing to a service academy for the third time in four years, you might think that practicing outside in dangerous weather was worth the risk for the sake of improvement.

Kelly and Notre Dame aren't alone. Many, if not most, division I-A football programs suffer from the same sort of myopia, in which the thoroughness of their film libraries outweigh any of the risks required to produce them.

Even a freshman in South Bend can see that. On his Facebook page Thursday, 18-year-old Connor Zagrans wrote, "football is a false god. . . . I place this blame on the community as a whole and especially the boosters and alumni for putting so much pressure on the team that they felt like they had to practice outside after a tornado warning."

Reached by telephone, Zagrans explained, "I don't think it's a malicious thing, like, 'Get up there, kid.' But it's the attitude that leads to a coach being absent-minded, that forces people to think of other things than safety."

Zagrans was planning to attend a 10 p.m. memorial mass on campus Thursday night for Sullivan, adding, "When I saw his last Twitter messages, it gave me chills thinking about it."

Ninety minutes before he plunged to his death, Sullivan tweeted, "Gusts of wind up to 60 mph, well today will be fun at work. . . . I guess I've lived long enough."

Less than 30 minutes before the lift crashed through a fence in back of the team's practice field, he tweeted, "holy [expletive] holy [expletive] this is terrifying."

Should he have known to get down at some point? Sure. But like every kid who wants to be close to Notre Dame football, he was doing what was expected of him. Entry level was his shot. He was essentially the "Rudy" of video coordinators.

To even be up there in those conditions, he had to buy in to the same belief of "commitment" to the golden dome, to Knute and the Gipper, to all that Notre Dame stands for then and now.

It's just too bad one of his superiors didn't show the same commitment to him.

When the madness of the BCS is discussed, outrage and incredulity always follow. But how about when a kid tragically dies while trying to film a practice from a swaying portable tower in 51-mph wind gusts? Doesn't that also tell us something about the sickness of big-time college athletics?

In the cloistered world of Notre Dame football, a student who was working directly for the school's cash cow followed orders and died.

Those who muster more passion and anger over who will play for the national title are trapped in the same warped matrix that put him in harm's way.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company