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Pass or fail: Football wins matter

| Friday, February 16, 2018

My neighbor — a Penn State graduate who vehemently opposed the NCAA sanction to strip former head coach Joe Paterno of his all-time win total in light of the Jerry Sandusky sex scandal — whisked by me on his way to work early Wednesday morning. “How does it feel that Notre Dame is the Black Lives Matter of college football?” he asked in reference to the NCAA decision to vacate Notre Dame’s 2012 and 2013 wins. He continued, “Don’t worry. You may get it overturned like we did with Paterno, but probably not.”

SBNATION’s Richard Johnson notes this week in his column, “The four wildest things about the NCAA vacating Notre Dame’s 2012 and 2013 wins,” is that the only dispute Notre Dame expressed concerning their appeal was the vacation of 21 total wins. The retroactive sanction levied by the NCAA Division I Committee on Infractions hinged on several overlying facts that even Notre Dame President, Fr. John Jenkins, could not adequately counter in his eloquent open response letter. Both sides seemed to accept the facts while differing on how they should be applied under NCAA regulations.

Neither dispute that a former Notre Dame part-time athletic training student was correctly judged to have violated NCAA ethical conduct rules and committed academic misconduct by completing assignments for two football players. She further provided six other football players with impermissible academic extra benefits. As a result, the University through what Jenkins describes as its “academic autonomy” recalculated those illegally inflated grades previously earned through cheating. The University additionally opted not to expel the student-athletes, but to thoroughly investigate the matter and give those students an opportunity for a second chance. As it turns out, that was the University’s death knell.

When the University imposed the warranted academic sanctions for cheating against the involved student-athletes, the penalties lowered grade point averages. Any respectable, nationally-reputable, educational institution would be expected to punish their cheaters. But in this case, since Notre Dame maintains such a sweatshop grade–chasing atmosphere, it created — in the eyes of the NCAA infractions panel — a legally indefensible condition. The lower grade point average changed the student-athlete eligibility status to “ineligible to compete” while he, in fact, participated in Notre Dame football games. Perhaps if those courses, among a number of other courses University-wide, had been structured with pass/fail grade options, the student-athletes may not have fallen into an ineligible status.

Regardless of whom one believes, the case hinged on the following: one, whether or not the part-time athletic training student was an instrument of the University’s institution; two, whether or not unprecedented retroactive sanctions were appropriate in this case; three, whether or not Notre Dame’s stringent standards limited its academic autonomy; and four, whether or not the offending student-athletes were ineligible to participate.

Mike Vorel, in his ND Insider column, quotes head coach Brian Kelly as saying, “When you hear about vacating wins, you think of lack of institutional control. You hear of clearly abuse within the University relative to extra benefits, things of that nature.”

Notes Jenkins in his letter, “Student-to-student cheating is not normally within the NCAA’s jurisdiction. But the NCAA concluded that the student’s role as a part-time assistant trainer made her a ‘representative of the institution’ and justified a vacation of team records penalty in this case.”

Unfortunately, several defining employee relations’ forces were at play at that time. The National Labor Relations Board had expanded the scope of the student-university relationship at Columbia University. On Aug. 17, 2015, the NLRB issued its ruling in Northwestern’s final appeal against the football players seeking to unionize. As a result of these events, in 2016 the NCAA clarified their governing documents (cited by Jenkins) regarding academic integrity and student assistant limitations and definitions. The NCAA clarified their definitions — not changed them — for student assistants: “An individual who meets this definition retains such status during the enrollment of the prospective student-athlete at the institution.”

Sadly, it appears that Notre Dame’s rigid academic structure cascaded consequences beyond the University’s control, which ultimately doomed the Irish in the eyes of the NCAA. By not expelling the offending athletes but recalculating their grade point averages, they plummeted below eligibility levels but still participated in football games. That was the irrefutable violation that penalized the University.

Interestingly, had the Notre Dame culture been less of an uber-demanding, grade-chasing sweatshop grind on students, but with perhaps more pass/fail options or some other positive, yet more forgiving GPA calculating aspect, Notre Dame would still have those 21 wins. Perversely, North Carolina knowingly created fake classes that benefitted both athletes along with non-athletes so that the NCAA did not penalize that more choreographed scheme to pass athletes. Notre Dame should consider adopting a liberal grading method to reduce the stress within the entire student body, but most assuredly, to assist the students who commit themselves full-time to the University.

Ironically, moving forward Notre Dame will be viewed sympathetically by some while despised by others — akin to my neighbor’s “Black Lives Matter” analogy. Whether football games matter in the future may lie in the University’s restructuring of pass/fail grades or simply by taking a Christian approach of turning the other cheek.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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