Who’s at fault in South Bend?

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The news from Notre Dame sounds depressingly familiar. Academic fraud has infected the storied football program, with several players already implicated and hints that “the scale of alleged fraud is comparable to the highly-publicized case at North Carolina.” Notre Dame can now be added to the long list of schools that have suffered embarrassing breakdowns in academic standards in recent years–Florida State, Minnesota, Washington, Michigan, Auburn, Cal, Georgia, Purdue, Kansas, UNC, and on and on.

In addition to the exposure of corruption at a school usually assumed to be above such things, those of us living in Chapel Hill might have noted other eerie parallels between the situations at Notre Dame and UNC. First, the University wasted no time before throwing the suspected cheaters under the bus. (The Daily Tar Heel notoriously outed suspended Tar Heel football players in September of 2010 with a front-page story that included pictures resembling mug shots.) At Notre Dame, DaVaris Daniels, KeiVarae Russell, Ishaq Williams, and Kendall Moore–suspected of having had others write papers for them–were immediately removed from the football field, their names divulged and placed under a cloud. The University, meanwhile, announced that it would conduct an internal investigation as it rushed to insulate all the truly “important” parties–the football coach, the Athletic Director, the University president, and the beleaguered myth of the “student-athlete”–from any blame for the classroom shenanigans. President John I. Jenkins was careful to note at his press conference that there was “no evidence” that coach Brian Kelly or his staff knew anything about the cheating. Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick gave assurances about the “thoroughness” of the upcoming investigation, promising (in a phrase that now induces nausea in Chapel Hill) that the institution would follow the evidence “wherever it leads us.” Jenkins insisted that “this is not a [general] student-athlete issue” and that he remains “confident in” the admissions process at Notre Dame. The cheating incidents, in other words, did not reflect any systemic problems. They were isolated infractions for which only the four offenders bore responsibility. “Students sometimes make bad decisions,” Jenkins continued. “Our job,” he declared, “is to hold them accountable.”

If Notre Dame is interested in holding people accountable for bad decisions, Jenkins and Swarbrick might want to begin the process with a long hard look in the mirror. In 2011, one year after the hiring of Brian Kelly as Notre Dame’s new head football coach, Brian Hamilton of the Chicago Tribune wrote an essay that described the changing environment in South Bend. After a long string of disappointing seasons and the ouster of a series of coaches who had posted underwhelming win-loss records, “Notre Dame decided to be good at football again.” And in this case, the quest to be good again–and to find the coach who could lead the Irish back to the Promised Land–required the loosening of admission standards, a less rigorous disciplinary regime, the investment of new resources in the institution’s football facilities, and a general attitude of “cooperation” on the part of the University’s leaders. Says Mike Maycock, who announces the NBC broadcasts of Notre Dame football games, “if you talk to a college head coach, they talk about the [importance of the] cooperation of administration. And if you don’t have the cooperation of an administration, you probably shouldn’t take the job.” Brian Kelly took the job, and in part this had to be because of the cooperation he had been promised. “Past obstacles such as on-campus interviews of recruits, or the admissions office preempting scholarship offers to those recruits” were either removed or diminished. The 2011 class of recruits included several players who had enrolled early (presumably so that they could address certain academic deficiencies)–only the sixth time in the institution’s history that early enrollments had been permitted. In addition, the head coach was given complete discretion in determining appropriate penalties for a player’s bad behavior. And he was given the run of a $2.5 million practice field freshly completed in 2008. “Notre Dame has decided it wants to win football games,” Hamilton concluded, “and now all [coach] Kelly has to do is win them.”

The institution’s leaders, in short, made the deliberate decision to prioritize athletic success over the maintenance of academic standards and the preservation of the University’s reputation. Unless the school also modified its curriculum and/or adopted new pedagogical approaches to the academic training of its weakest football players upon Kelly’s hiring, Jenkins and Swarbrick had to have known that they were asking for trouble. Football players work 45- and 50-hour weeks at their sport. They travel long distances from campus. They are urged, at places like Notre Dame, to see themselves as belonging among the nation’s best athletes and therefore having realistic chances of going pro. To expect the academically deficient or indifferent players on the team also to thrive in a challenging academic environment at a selective school–without receiving “help” and seeking shortcuts–is unrealistic in the extreme. Even worse than this failure to anticipate trouble is the reflexive scapegoating of the “bad decision”-makers once the inevitable corner-cutting comes to light. The four suspended Notre Dame football players were recruited to the team because they were among the difference-makers that Kelly needed to change the program’s fortunes. Everyone knew the chances that were being taken; everyone applauded the athletes when they made game-changing plays on the field. To fault them now for bending to reality and making academics a distant priority, even though the system under which they labor tells them every day that they must focus on football, is hypocritical and cowardly.

If Jenkins and Swarbrick are serious about protecting Notre Dame’s integrity and ensuring that “cheating” does not occur in the future, they–and everyone connected to Notre Dame football, as well as all other sport fans across the country–need to begin by dropping the pretense that big-time football and basketball players are students first. They are not. In the current system, they are athletes first and students only by necessity. Notre Dame and places like it could structure the athletic-academic relationship so that real educations are imparted to profit-sport athletes. They could see to it that students are given all the time and resources needed to prioritize academics. But they do not make the effort and they likely never will. To deny this reality, to insist on continuing the massive charade that the myth of the student-athlete requires, is to leave everyone cheated. The players most of all.

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