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Brian Kelly’s crisis of conscience

As the entirely avoidable death of Declan Sullivan continues to gnaw at me like that feeling of something I’ve forgotten to do or the sense that there’s something I need to remember to do but can’t quite remember what it is, the only way to make the discomfort subside for the next 10 hours or so is to write about the situation.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few days wondering what Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly is thinking right now. As the man ultimately responsible for everything that happens in the Fighting Irish football program, and as the man who apparently decided to practice outside, not inside, on Declan’s last day, Kelly likely is feeling responsible for the accident.

There’s that word again. “Accident.” As I’ve told my son more times than he cares to remember when he’s doing something that he shouldn’t be doing, a potential bad outcome can’t be brushed off as an “accident” when common sense should have indicated the connection between the behavior and the eventual “accident.”

And when an “accident” happens under those circumstances, people are held accountable.

For Notre Dame, which undoubtedly has liability limits and umbrella policies that will allow $10 million or more to be paid by an insurance carrier to Sullivan’s family (as if that will even begin to comfort them), the question of accountability runs far deeper than whether the death falls within the terms of the available coverage. For Notre Dame, the question of accountability entails doing the right thing in the wake of a preventable tragedy -- and, ideally, those accountable shouldn’t have to be told by anything but their own consciences what the right outcome should be.

Jason Whitlock of has made a passionate, persuasive argument that Kelly should immediately be fired. We agree with a lot of what Whitlock has said. For now, however, we’re not sure we agree with the suggested outcome.

It’s still too early in the process for Notre Dame to determine whether Kelly has responsibility for Sullivan’s death. But Kelly likely knows right now, in his heart, whether he bears all or part of the blame for Sullvan’s death.

The algorithm is simple. Can Kelly look the mother of Declan Sullivan in the eyes and truthfully say, “There was nothing I could have done to save your son”? If Kelly can’t do that, then he should resign. Apart from being the right thing to do, it will set a clear precedent and send a loud message to every head coach at every level of every sport.

Every day, people entrust the safety of their sons and daughters to these men and women. Certain risks aren’t avoidable. Plenty of risks -- especially weather-related hazards like wind and lightning -- are. Coaches need at all times to be willing to take all reasonable precautions to protect the sons and daughters under their care from these dangers.

And when they fail to take reasonable precautions, they never should seek refuge in the notion that it was all an “accident.”