Investigation Lands Football Program on First-Ever Probation

Author: Notre Dame Magazine staff

Athletics personnel are now expected to report any situation that even suggests improper conduct or potential rules violations. More than ever before, coaches will be evaluated on the progress their players make off the field. And every official fan club of a Notre Dame team has been disbanded.

Those are some of the actions President Malloy said the University has taken in light of an NCAA investigation that culminated last December with the athletics program being found guilty of major rules violations for the first time in its history.

The violations involved mainly gifts and other items of value given to football players by a woman who became romantically involved with several players. Also, a player was found to have offered complimentary tickets to his girlfriend in lieu of paying her back money she loaned him. Another player paid a tutor to write a paper for him.

The NCAA’s Division I Committee on Infractions placed the football program on two years probation and reduced by one the number of grants-in-aid the team can offer in recruiting during each of the next two years. The penalty is not likely to have any material effect on recruiting because in recent years Notre Dame has seldom awarded the maximum permissible number of athletic scholarships (currently 85). The probation also does not affect the University’s eligibility for bowl games or its television contract.

Reacting to the NCAA verdict, President Malloy emphasized renewed an increased vigilance to prevent any further rules violations.

“Notre Dame has a proud tradition in athletics, not only for doing well but also for doing right,” he said. “We regret these incidents, and I pledge my own and my administration’s most diligent effort to avoid such problems in the future.”

Malloy underscored that commitment personally in an unprecedented mandatory meeting with all coaches, other athletic-department staff and student-athletes the first day of spring semester. Notre Dame’s decision to get rid of its booster clubs for every sport is believed to be unprecedented among college athletic programs.

The NCAA investigation focused on two cases, both of which were brought to the attention of the NCAA’s infractions staff by Notre Dame – as is the University’s policy with any potential rules violation.

One case involved a woman, Kimberly Dunbar, who worked several years as a bookkeeper for a South Bend heating and air conditioning contractor. Over several years she made friends with a number of Notre Dame football players and became romantically involved with some. She bought the players gifts and treated them to outings at professional sports events. By all accounts, the players did not know that the source of her generosity was hundreds of thousands of dollars she was embezzling from her employer.

The other case involved a football player’s girlfriend who was a Notre Dame student employed part time as a tutor in the Office of Academic Services for Student-Athletes. The young woman told University investigators last fall that while employed by the University she accepted complimentary tickets to games from her boyfriend in lieu of his repaying $200 she’s loaned him. (It’s a violation of NCAA rules for student-athletes to receive anything of value for their complimentary tickets.) After graduating in 1998, she continued tutoring on an on-call basis. She admitted that during this period she accepted $20 to $30 from a friend and teammate of her boyfriend to compose a paper for him for a class.

By the time the NCAA committee reached its verdict last December, Dunbar had been convicted, imprisoned and released early by virtue of completing a college degree while behind bars. The only players involved in the case who were still students were those who had attended a Chicago Bulls game at her expense. With the NCAA’s agreement, the University required these players to donate the value of that trip to charities of their choice, and their eligibility was restored. The part-time tutor – who committed other rules violations by treating football players and other student-athletes to meals at restaurants around South Bend and by paying for two hotel stays, among other wrongs – was terminated. The teammate who bought the paper (for a management class, which he still flunked) withdrew from the University.

As is its policy with all disciplinary matters, the University has not made public the names of the students involved.

Historically, the NCAA has taken the attitude that gifts to student-athletes violate rules against players receiving extra benefits only when the gifts are provided by employees or alumni of the University or if they come from people with some other formal connection to the athletics program, such as membership in a school-sponsored booster club. The girlfriend-tutor was employed by Notre Dame. Dunbar was neither an employee no an alumna. However, in the NCAA’s eyes she became a representative of the University’s athletic interests when, in mid-1995 – well after she began dating and giving gifts to football players – she joined the Quarterback Club.

Disbanded soon after Dunbar’s actions came to light, the Quarterback Club originated as a handful of local businessmen who would meet for breakfast with Coach Ara Parseghian. By the late 1990s, the club had grown to 1,400 members, but its only activity was a luncheon at the Joyce Center the day before home games. The only benefit of the $25 annual dues was the right to purchase tickets to those luncheons.

Another issue in the cases involved gift-giving and romantic relationships. The NCAA has long deemed it to be within the rules for a student-athlete to receive gifts from a boyfriend or girlfriend, even if that person is an alumnus of a university employee. But the Committee on Infractions – composed of law professors, retired judges and academics – deemed that interpretation to be too broad. The committee pointed out that an outsider might conceivably pursue a romantic relationship with a player with the specific intention of evading the rules against players receiving extra benefits.

Given the facts of the cases and how Notre Dame officials responded, the Committee on Infractions could have found Notre Dame guilty of a secondary, rather than a major, rules violation. Among the reasons the committee gave for the harsher judgment were that the violations occurred over a long period of time (according to investigators, Dunbar began dating and giving gifts to her first Notre Dame player in late 1993) and the extravagant nature of the gifts (one of her final spending sprees came in January 1998, when she treated several players, other Notre Dame students, and other friends and relatives to a night in a private box at a Chicago Bulls game; estimated cost: $20,000). The committee said Notre Dame’s athletic officials should have known or suspected what was happening and taken action sooner.