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Suspension recalls past cases, raises questions

Maddie Hanna | Wednesday, January 31, 2007

When the University sent sophomore guard Kyle McAlarney home last Monday, it wasn’t just the basketball player’s name that got splashed across national headlines.

The decision to suspend McAlarney – who was arrested Dec. 29 on charges of marijuana possession – immediately projected Notre Dame into the debate.

“The bad news is everyone always looks at cases that involve athletes as some kind of litmus test for the school or program,” said Mike Coffey, the men’s basketball editor of NDNation.com.

But despite the extensive media attention McAlarney received, he certainly isn’t the first student athlete to get in trouble with the University. Like its students, Notre Dame’s varsity athletes face disciplinary action from the Office of Residence Life and Housing on a fairly regular basis.

The numbers

“I think with athletes, when you get in trouble, it’s usually reported,” said Ashley McConnell, a senior and former football player who was suspended for fall of 2004. “This stuff happens pretty frequently.”

In 2002-03, 94 disciplinary cases involving varsity athletes were brought to the University, according to statistics provided last fall by the Office of Residence Life and Housing. There were 1,246 incidents that year, putting athlete-related cases at 7.5 percent.

In 2003-04, 79 of 1,074 disciplinary cases involved varsity athletes – a similar frequency from the year earlier, at 7.4 percent.

The 2004-05 year saw a drop in the proportion of athlete-related cases, down to 4.7 percent. Varsity athletes were involved in 48 of 1,019 cases handled by the Office of Residence Life and Housing that year.

The statistics are for the number of incidents, not the number of individuals, meaning they don’t account for repeat visits. Director of Residence Life and Housing Jeff Shoup declined to comment and said he is not responding to The Observer’s requests for information.

During each of the three years, the football team accounted for the most incidents: 21 in 2002-03, 22 in 2003-04 and 15 in 2004-05. The football team roster usually has around 100 players.

Men’s basketball, which usually has 14 players, had three cases reported to the Office of Residence Life and Housing in 2002-03, nine in 2003-04 and two in 2004-05.

High profile scrutiny now…

While the numbers help put the McAlarney incident into context – add one to men’s basketball, 2006-07 – this case is different, on certain levels.

It’s about the starting point guard, for one. And it involves marijuana.

Blue and Gold Illustrated writer Bob Chmiel, who served as Notre Dame’s recruiting coordinator from 1994-97 and the coordinator of football operations from 1998-2000, said he couldn’t remember the last reported case involving a Notre Dame athlete and marijuana. Neither could Coffey, who runs the NDNation message board.

“Usually when something like that happens, my experience is Notre Dame doesn’t usually come out and say, it’s because of drugs,” said Coffey, who graduated from the University in 1991, started NDNation in 1999 and published “Echoes on the Hardwood: A History of Notre Dame Basketball” in 2004.

Chmiel noted that not all athlete drug usage is reported. Notre Dame’s drug testing program randomly selects student athletes for hair testing and, when testing for anabolic steroid use, conducts urine testing – sometimes random, sometimes team selected.

The University’s program “functions independently from, but works in conjunction with” the NCAA drug-testing program, according to athletic department policy.

Former Notre Dame football player Reggie Brooks, who graduated in 1992 and now works for the Office of Information Technology, said athlete drug use is nothing new.

“Oh, yeah,” he said when asked if he knew fellow athletes who smoked marijuana when he played for Notre Dame. “It was present back then – and it wasn’t just the athletes.”

But at a place like Notre Dame – which Chmiel said “holds itself to a higher standard” – drugs aren’t quickly ignored.

“People expect more from Notre Dame. That’s because Notre Dame expects more from itself,” he said. “When you sign up for Notre Dame, whether it be as a student, a coach, an employee – you should be held to a higher standard.”

But both he and Brooks said certain people outside the Notre Dame community preoccupy themselves with finding fault within the University.

“Notre Dame, more than any other university, is scrutinized to the nth degree,” Brooks said.

“There are people that revel in seeing a pinch in the armor, so to speak, at Notre Dame. You’re going to be under a microscope,” Chmiel said. “Does that add to responsibility? Yeah, it does.”

But “when it’s good,” he said, “it also enhances accomplishments.”

Chmiel said the McAlarney case was startling. But he believes it was magnified given the state of today’s media landscape.

“I just think there’s more information, readily available,” he said. “With the Internet … now, [reporting] is almost immediate.”

… and then

The last incident of this magnitude involving the men’s basketball team, Coffey said, was probably the dismissal of Doug Gottlieb. In 1996, Gottlieb – a prized recruit who now works for ESPN Radio – was accused of stealing his friend’s credit cards. He was gone before his sophomore year.

That was off-season, however. In terms of high profile in-season cases, Coffey mentioned Mark Stevenson, who was arrested in December 1987 in connection with a shoplifting incident. In January, he was arrested on minor in possession charges and suspended from four basketball games. That spring, coach Digger Phelps dismissed Stevenson from the team, but said he would be allowed to return under scholarship for his senior year.

Stevenson, a 1985 McDonald’s High School All-American, transferred to Duquesne.

A more recent incident took place in October 2000, when basketball players Troy Murphy, Jere Macura and Tom Timmermans were among 147 individuals cited for minor in a tavern during a raid of Finnegan’s Bar.

But beyond basketball, there have been multiple high profile incidents involving Notre Dame athletes. In early 2002, football players Lorenzo Crawford, Justin Smith, Donald Dykes and Abram Elam were dismissed from the University following accusations of raping a female Notre Dame student in an off-campus house.

Coffey also referred to Cooper Rego, the Notre Dame football player who was expelled in 1999 after accusations of sexual assault surfaced. Rego transferred to West Virginia, and Coffey said there was controversy when the Mountaineers came to play Notre Dame during the 2000-01 season, since Rego had been banned from campus.

The fallout

The McAlarney debate – specifically, questions surrounding University policy – has yet to die down.

“You don’t want to see a school bend rules for an athlete, but often times a high profile case like this can be used to evaluate rules for student athletes or non-athletes,” Coffey said.

Brooks called McAlarney’s marijuana possession a “fairly egregious mistake,” expressed concern with the University’s decision.

“I’ve never been big on the drug scene, I know it’s fashionable nowadays … at the same time, what’s the difference – other than the legal ramifications – between alcohol and marijuana?” he said. “Both impair your judgment.”

While he was quick to say he didn’t have complete knowledge of the circumstances surrounding the case, Brooks said he thought suspension was “a little harsh.”

As an athlete who “had run-ins with Student Affairs,” he said, “I thought we were sometimes targeted.”

“Sometimes Notre Dame takes the stance of preferring image over just decisions,” he said, explaining that at times, he felt the University had higher expectations for athletes to counter the perception that those in sports were receiving preferential treatment.

For McConnell, who said the University denied his request to receive a year of community service instead of suspension for an unspecified offense, there has been no preferential treatment. Whatever perceptions exist of how Notre Dame treats its athletes, he said there’s no escaping the inevitable.

“I don’t know any athlete – or a non-athlete – who has gotten out of ResLife,” he said.