By NCAA decree, the Notre Dame football team has unwon 21 games from the 2012 and 2013 seasons.
In February, the NCAA denied Notre Dame’s appeal of an academic misconduct punishment dating to that period, and so the unbeaten 2012 regular season and all nine wins the next year disappeared from the record books.
The decision drew a rebuke from University President Rev. John I. Jenkins, CSC, ’76, ’78M.A., who issued a statement saying that handing down such a harsh penalty under the circumstances “defies logic and any notion of fundamental fairness.”
Here are the facts: A student trainer completed coursework and provided other impermissible help to several players — academic dishonesty that came to the University’s attention in 2014. After an internal investigation confirmed that the cheating occurred, the consequences under the University’s honor code included a recalculation of grade-point averages to reflect the violations. That made players retroactively ineligible, the key factor that led to the nullification of Notre Dame’s victories.
Adding to the case against Notre Dame, the NCAA deemed the student trainer a “representative of the university,” a category that indicates institutional complicity and is usually reserved for coaches, administrators and academic advisors. Because of the trainer’s status as a full-time student, not a University staff member, Jenkins argued that the situation deserved to be handled like previous cases of cheating among students at other schools, in which the NCAA chose not to vacate wins.
Jenkins referenced the NCAA’s recent investigation of the University of North Carolina, in which the NCAA issued no sanctions despite finding that athletes “more likely than not” had received fraudulent credits to remain eligible. In that instance, the NCAA said that determining the legitimacy of the courses was outside its jurisdiction.
Allowing one member school such latitude while punishing another for taking action under its honor code, Jenkins went on, “turns the seminal concept of academic autonomy on its head,” divorcing it from its “underlying educational purpose.” He said Notre Dame had 21 wins vacated, in effect, because it applied its stringent academic code of conduct to the players.
“If the University imposed no sanction whatsoever for the academic dishonesty,” Jenkins wrote, “there would, by the NCAA’s reasoning, be no competition while ineligible and no reason for a sanction.”
The precedent, he added, risks undermining the academic integrity of college sports because it gives universities reason to be reluctant about policing dishonesty in a way that could have negative athletic consequences.
“At best, the NCAA’s decision in this case creates a randomness of outcome based solely on how an institution chooses to define its honor code,” Jenkins wrote. “At worst, it creates an incentive for colleges and universities to change their honor codes to avoid sanctions like that imposed here.”