Analyzing Notre Dame's Sullivan report

Updated: April 21, 2011, 3:39 PM ET
By Ryan McGee

Welcome back to Three Downs and Punt, where we are already in mourning about the end of spring practice. But not as much as reader Lincoln G. from Oxford, Miss., who writes:

"Just what exactly am I supposed to do with myself between now and August? We're ending spring practice down here with no idea who is going to play quarterback and with a coach who I just know is going to pop up in the middle of all these scandals that seem to break out every week. Seriously, dude. Do I just go pop a tent in The Grove and sleep there all summer until two-a-days start?"

Well, Lincoln, when it comes to Mississippi Rebels news, I'm always going to go with ESPN.com's Edward Aschoff, and he says Randall Mackey is the QB leader in the clubhouse. As for camping in The Grove, I do like the idea. But I'm thinking campus security might not.

To the plays!

First Down: The real takeaway from the Notre Dame accident report

On Monday, Notre Dame released its 145-page report on the Declan Sullivan tragedy. When the 20-year-old member of the football team's video unit was killed on Oct. 27, 2010, it struck an emotional chord with me because of my time as a student videographer with the Tennessee Volunteers in the early 1990s. So much so, in fact, that I wrote extensively about my experiences in this blog.

So when the Notre Dame report was published on the university's website, I promised myself I wouldn't react until I'd had a chance to read the entire report. On Tuesday, I did just that.

In the end, the report blames no one individual or office for the decision to allow the junior to pilot and extend his scissor lift into the blustery day. Not athletic director Jack Swarbrick, director of football operations Chad Klunder, then-head athletic trainer Jim Russ or Sullivan's immediate supervisor, video coordinator Tim Collins.

All of those men had their heads called for by heartbroken fans and understandably angry members of the media, particularly in those raw, first few days following the accident. Swarbrick's personal recollection of the day's events that he shared at the initial October press conference drew the most vicious fire. What wasn't aimed at the AD was saved for coach Brian Kelly, who didn't address the subject in public, save for a few prepared statements and a short press conference following the team's loss to Tulsa.

That's why the initial reaction from so many to Monday's findings was so pointed and emotional. The simplest summation of the report came in its fifth paragraph, part of the opening letter from Notre Dame president, Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C:

"Many individuals and departments share the collective responsibility for the inadequacy of the procedures that led to this tragedy. The university, then, is collectively responsible."

For those who wanted to see heads roll, the idea of a mass responsibility has been unsatisfying and enraging. There has to be someone to blame, right? A smoking gun has to exist, with the fingerprints of the individual who must live with the guilt of Sullivan's death, doesn't it?


The central finding of the report's story is spot-on. What killed Sullivan wasn't one bad decision made by a person or persons who didn't do their job. Sullivan was killed by a culture, the hierarchy of an old-school, grass-and-lime rectangular world that has largely remained unchanged since the days of Knute Rockne. And it isn't exclusive to South Bend.

In the end, that culture is what the report ultimately blames for the deadly accident. It's the environment that I tried to describe in my October column. It's a mentality straight out of "A Few Good Men" that says you don't question orders, you obey them, whether you're an offensive lineman or the equipment manager. And it's not a duty that's done out of fear, it's out of a desire to do the right thing.

We'll never know what Sullivan was thinking up on that tower in the wind -- even his cryptic tweets have come under differences of interpretation -- but the reason that he stayed up there was simple: He didn't want to let the team down.

When I was asked to clarify my feelings on "Outside The Lines" a few days after the accident, the best explanation I could come up with then was still the best one that I have now. When I was 20 years old, the last thing in the world I would ever have considered was to climb my tower, look at the weather and turn to head coach/living legend Johnny Majors and say, "Hey Coach, I don't think we should be practicing outside today."

You think Sullivan, a kid who grew up outside Chicago wearing green and gold, was going to be the guy who bailed on practice because it was windy or went against what he believed were the wishes of Brian Kelly? Not a chance.

The only section of the report in which Kelly is discussed at length is the pages that detail the timeline of the decision to hold practice outside on Oct. 27. Kelly did as he had always done, eyeball the weather to make the call to practice outside. He conveyed that decision to Klunder, who refers to himself as "Kelly's weatherman" and advisor on the daily outside-or-inside decision. Klunder informs Collins and Russ of Kelly's plan, and they do everything they can to make that happen, sending troops of both students and staff into action. Everyone monitors the weather all day long, but it is clear that if the initial order was "practice outside" that's exactly what everyone is going to make happen.

As the report details, there should have been better monitoring of to-the-second weather conditions. There also should have been more defined roles as to who would do that monitoring and to whom they should report if they had concerns. There certainly needed to be more thorough training on what the team's three scissor lifts were and were not capable of. All of those issues were addressed, and plans were laid out to correct them.

But the most important sentence of the report gets lost among all of the carefully worded timelines and recommendations. The words that ultimately hold the solution to avoiding another practice-field tragedy live on Page 15, between "Appointment of Athletic Department Safety Contacts" and "New Lift-Identification Protocol."

It reads: "In addition to the Safety Contact, coaches, filming coordinators, videographers, and all other employee-operators should still be encouraged to voice any concerns they may have regarding the propriety of using lifts in certain conditions. Moreover, lift operators should continue to be empowered to ground or lower the lifts if they feel uncomfortable for any reason whatsoever."

In other words, forget the chain of command. Forget that you might get yelled at by a position coach for having missed a few plays on video while you adjusted your lift. Forget that you might receive catcalls from the players below for wimping out while they are toughing it out.

Now those who have long been an invisible link in the college football chain are being given the power to do the right thing. To speak up and use common sense in situations they are uncomfortable with.

"When we get to the CSVA [Collegiate Sports Video Association] conference next month, we'll be talking about the Notre Dame report for five days," an ACC video coordinator told me Wednesday afternoon. "The recommendations in the report aren't just for Notre Dame, they're for all of us. But what we're most excited about is that it gives us stronger position in the decision-making process. You don't take blind orders anymore and just see them through, damn the torpedoes. Now you can speak up and say, 'This is a bad idea.'"