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Notre Dame's Leadership Is Failing Its Students

Notre Dame president Father John Jenkins and football coach Brian Kelly have not led by example on the coronavirus, and it could end up costing the Fighting Irish dearly.

For Notre Dame fans waiting for decades for the school to get back to No. 1, we have an exciting update. Go ahead and wake up the echoes, because the Fighting Irish finally made it this week.

They are the national leader in COVID-19 angst.

Saturday solidified the school’s No. 1 ranking. The undefeated football team did not play due to an outbreak that forced postponement of its game against Wake Forest. Meanwhile, school president Father John Jenkins went without a mask in a large crowd at the Supreme Court nominating ceremony at the White House for Notre Dame alumna and professor Amy Coney Barrett.

“I think we may have gotten a little loose in some areas,” football athletic trainer Rob Hunt said on a media call Thursday.

“I regret my error of judgment in not wearing a mask,” Jenkins said in an email to students, faculty and staff — an email that stopped short of an actual apology.

On Friday, the school announced Jenkins tested positive for COVID-19 after he learned that a colleague with whom he had been in regular contact also tested positive.

Regrets, Notre Dame has a few. How many, ultimately? We’ll see.

But video of head coach Brian Kelly’s talk to his team after a fateful South Florida game on Sept. 19 was telling. “The mask will beat this,” Kelly says, his own mask pulled down to his chin as he addressed the players. “The mask will beat it. If we don’t use our mask, we’re gonna get beat, and that’s silly. We’re too damn good.”

By the time Kelly spoke those words, the virus was already running through his team — 39 players went either into quarantine or isolation days after Notre Dame blasted the Bulls 52-0. Contact tracing caution then forced South Florida to postpone its own game last week. The Irish were fortunate to have an open date this Saturday, or else that game likely would have been called off as well.

STEINBERG: Game Postponements Forcing Double Byes

The school has gone to extraordinary lengths to play football this season. With its schedule in danger of falling apart, the Irish interrupted 133 years of independence to join the Atlantic Coast Conference for one year only. When a general student outbreak in August led Jenkins to shut down all in-person classes for two weeks and stop on-campus extracurricular activities, football kept going after a brief pause.

When the football spike dovetailed with Jenkins’ maskless White House junket, Touchdown Jesus should have changed his pose to a surrender cobra.

University of Notre Dame president Fr. John Jenkins leads a prayer during a celebration of Juneteenth by Notre Dame football players on Friday, June 19, 2020, at Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind.

University of Notre Dame president Fr. John Jenkins leads a prayer without a mask during a celebration of Juneteenth by Notre Dame football players on Friday, June 19, 2020.

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Students at the school were so thrilled by Jenkins’ flouting of what he’d been preaching all semester that several of them reported their president via the school’s COVID incident reporting form. Others circulated a petition calling for Jenkins to resign. The Observer, the student newspaper, was sharply critical of him in an editorial that ran under the headline, “Frankly, this is embarrassing.”

“On the same day a football game was canceled because of COVID, he went to this event without a mask,” said Observer editor-in-chief Maria Leontaras. “It was just a bit outrageous.”

When virus numbers spiked on campus in August, Jenkins aired a video address to the students in which he said he considered sending them all home for the semester. He stopped short of that, but the school has threatened disciplinary action against students who don’t follow all the campus health protocols. Then lo and behold, the president travels off campus (which is discouraged) and appears in a crowd without a mask.

The football outbreak has largely been traced to a team meal before Notre Dame played South Florida. For some reason, it didn’t occur to anyone that gathering in such a fashion could present a health risk — even though the team had been doing grab-and-go meals throughout preseason practice to avoid exactly that kind of large-group interaction. (Hunt also mentioned that the program is altering its operations in terms of locker room and sideline spacing.)

Coach Brian Kelly also told ESPN earlier this week that a player throwing up on the sideline during the game wound up testing positive for the virus. (That incident did not come up on the program’s Thursday zoom call.) The player had been treated for presumed dehydration during the game, Kelly said. "Just being vigilant and understanding that this thing can hide in so many different areas to make it a tricky proposition, even if you're doing all of the right things,” Kelly told ESPN.

One of the places the virus can hide: between the Friday test and Saturday kickoff. Players who tested negative one day might still have COVID incubating in their systems, ready to come to full fruition the next day. “A negative test on Friday does not mean … you’re free and clear from the virus at that point,” Hunt said.

It was nice that Hunt said that part out loud, because college teams have blown off gameday protocols nationally throughout September. The situation at Notre Dame — and in the NFL with the Tennessee Titans — might be the reality check everyone needed.

Notre Dame Fighting Irish head coach Brian Kelly looks on during the first half against the Iowa State Cyclones at Camping World Stadium.

Notre Dame Fighting Irish head coach Brian Kelly looks on during the first half against the Iowa State Cyclones at Camping World Stadium on Dec. 28, 2019.

Notre Dame officials were strong in their conviction that having a fall football slate would keep their everyone within the program motivated to continue following health protocols. That clearly didn’t work well enough, with the No. 5 Irish becoming the highest-rated team to postpone a game thus far. Now we’ll see whether they can piece a promising season back together.

After roughly 10 days without a full-speed practice, they got back to it Thursday. Kelly said the plan is for another full practice Friday, a weight workout Saturday and then a live scrimmage Sunday in anticipation of hosting Florida State Oct. 10. Kelly compared diving back in after an extended time off to bowl preparation.

Once again, the schedule is helping. The Seminoles are winless and damn near helpless. Next is a fourth straight home game, against 1-2 Louisville. Notre Dame should be back to fully operational in plenty of time for a trip to Pittsburgh Oct. 24 — if everything goes well.

“We can’t afford another setback the way we had one the last 10 days,” Kelly said.

To the school’s credit, it has been transparent about this outbreak and hardly cavalier in dealing with it. This is not Texas Tech casually mentioning that it had 75 positive players over the summer, or Ed Orgeron almost boasting that “more than half” the team at LSU has had the virus.

But the football team’s defense against the virus wasn’t airtight, and the president has infuriated the student body, and now the school has missteps to own and recover from. That’s why Notre Dame is No. 1 in the COVID-19 angst ratings.