What's worse? A knock on the door in late May followed by the news that your starting quarterback has been suspended for a year for academic dishonesty? Or a knock on the door in mid-August with news that your best receiver, best defensive back, a starting defensive end and a backup linebacker might be guilty of the same thing and could face the same punishment or worse?
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly might need to play out this season before he answers that question, but he'll be uniquely qualified. After losing quarterback Everett Golson for all of last season because of a violation of Notre Dame's student honor code, Kelly might lose receiver DaVaris Daniels, cornerback KeiVarae Russell, defensive end Ishaq Williams and linebacker Kendall Moore for this season or longer. The players were pulled into meetings Friday morning with investigators looking into alleged academic fraud. They were held out of practice, and their futures with the school are uncertain. The fact that Notre Dame held a press conference to discuss them and that athletic director Jack Swarbrick identified them does not seem to bode well for them.
The Rev. John Jenkins said evidence that students had submitted papers and homework written for them by others was found near the end of the summer session, prompting an investigation. That investigation continues, and the reluctance of Swarbrick and Jenkins to provide specifics or timelines beyond the initial tip suggests this could get more embarrassing for the Fighting Irish.
“How far back it goes, we’re just not prepared to say right now,” Jenkins said at a news conference early Friday evening. Notre Dame vice president Paul Browne said in a release Friday that school officials were prepared to vacate football victories if they found evidence that any player would have been ineligible during competition. Jenkins and Swarbrick did not want to speculate how far back this goes, but my 15-year-old self will light some candles in the Grotto and pray all-time great Notre Dame tutor D-Bob wasn’t involved.
This is the part where I’m supposed to deliver a scalding take that calls for the firing of Kelly or the disbanding of Notre Dame's football program, but to use a word Jenkins seemed fond of Friday, that would be premature. We don’t know what actually happened yet. Notre Dame is a private school and doesn’t have to tell us anything, but we’ll have a little better idea if those four don’t rejoin the team or if the investigation snares anyone else. The fact that investigation continues suggests that more bad news could be forthcoming.
“We’re going to have this investigation go wherever it leads us,” Swarbrick said, “and we’re going to be thorough.”
We do know Notre Dame tries harder than a lot of schools to make the experiences of its football players more similar to the experiences of the general student body. Notre Dame lacks the Basket Weaving majors many of its fellow schools use to help keep athletes eligible to play. It seems to take academic dishonesty quite seriously -- as Golson can attest. The honor code is no joke. If it seems as if there are more academic honesty issues in the football program at Notre Dame, consider the possibility that Notre Dame is enforcing those issues more strictly. To put it another way, it’s easy to have a low crime rate if no one ever calls the police.
“I consider this the system doing its job,” Jenkins said. “At any university, you’re dealing with young people. The vast majority of them make good decisions, but young people sometimes make bad decisions. Our job is to hold them accountable and use those incidents as ways to educate them. That's what we’re doing.”
For two consecutive seasons, Notre Dame has defended its academic reputation to the extreme detriment of its football program. Take a look at this season’s schedule. The Irish have to play Michigan, Stanford, USC, Florida State, Arizona State, North Carolina and Louisville. That would be a quite a bit easier with the four players suspended Friday. This is going to hurt a lot, even if the investigation finds no other problems. Notre Dame could have swept this under the rug – and fairly easily.
It’s a private school, so it isn’t subject to any state open records law. The NCAA doesn’t usually investigate academic honesty issues unless it thinks someone at the school is doctoring transcripts or someone affiliated with the school writing papers, giving answers to tests or setting up easy classes for a multitude athletes.
The given reason for this is that Notre Dame answers to a higher power than the win-loss column, and that may be true. But even the most cynical among us can find a valid reason for school officials to crack down on cheating even if it causes the football team to lose games. Notre Dame’s football program may be one of the most valuable properties in college sports, but Notre Dame’s academic reputation is far more valuable. As of June 30, 2013, Notre Dame’s endowment was worth $8.3 billion. It has grown that endowment thanks to donations from alumni, who have that money to spend – for the most part – because they are smart, driven, high-achievers. Notre Dame’s academic reputation attracts such people, and anything damaging to that reputation would hamper its efforts to land such students in the future.
Just as North Carolina, one of the nation’s top state-run universities, has had to deal with damage caused by an academic scandal involving bogus classes taken by many athletes, Notre Dame’s academic reputation would suffer if it didn’t vigorously defend its academic policies instead of ignoring them in the name of winning games. Not every school has so valuable an academic reputation, so not every school has to crack down on academic malfeasance like this. For Notre Dame, it’s just good business.
That won’t help the football team if four or more key players are gone. That schedule was tough enough with them. But there could be one bright side. If one of the players cheated on his schoolwork in 2012, the Fighting Irish can vacate that entire season. That would wipe out a 12-0 regular season, but it also would allow Notre Dame to officially pretend that Alabama game never happened.
C’mon, Irish fans. Laugh a little at that one. You could be crying a lot this season.