IN THE EARLY 1980s, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED writer John Underwood, who was among the first journalists to write about hypocrisy in major college athletics, received a letter from Rev. Edmund P. Joyce, who was then executive vice president of Notre Dame and responsible for overseeing the university's athletic department.
In his letter Joyce, who died in 2004, challenged SI to examine Notre Dame's athletic model. He wrote, "As I read [your words] I say to myself, 'Not the slightest tinge of this scenario is applicable to Notre Dame. It simply doesn't describe the athletic picture as I know it.'"
Underwood consulted an unnamed rival coach, who brushed off the notion that the sport could learn from Notre Dame's emphasis on the student half of the student-athlete equation. "Learn? What's to learn?" the coach shouted. "That's Utopia! You can't even compare Notre Dame with us." That quote appeared in an Underwood story that ran in the Jan. 10, 1983, issue. "Notre Dame undoubtedly is neither the dream world my coaching friend thinks it to be nor the model for every school that other administrators should rush to imitate, as Joyce appeared to suggest," Underwood wrote. "But, upon evaluation, Joyce would seem closer to the mark."
In the 31 years since, Notre Dame has had eight football coaches and three university presidents. Yet some form of Underwood's conclusion—often in the shorthand the Irish do it the right way—has been brought into play in nearly every examination of Notre Dame football, most recently during the team's run to the national championship game in 2012.
Never has that standard been under greater scrutiny than it is now. Last Friday, Notre Dame officials confirmed that football players DaVaris Daniels, Kendall Moore, KeiVarae Russell and Ishaq Williams were being held out of practices while under investigation for academic fraud. It was the school's third high-profile academic incident involving athletes in the last 15 months. Quarterback Everett Golson, who led the Irish to that title game against Alabama two years ago, missed the entire 2013 season while under academic suspension, and basketball player Jerian Grant missed the final 20 games of the '13--14 season after he was suspended for the spring semester for an academic violation. Notre Dame president Rev. John I. Jenkins said that if it is determined that the four current players should have been ineligible during past seasons, any victories will be forfeited. All four players saw action in 2012.
In announcing the investigation, Jenkins sounded like Joyce had more than 30 years earlier. "Integrity is at the heart of our mission as a university," he said. "Academic dishonesty strikes at that heart. As we investigate, we will redouble our efforts to reinforce the importance of honesty in all we do."
Understand this about Notre Dame: It does not publicly back down from the standards put forth by Joyce so long ago. The school always seizes the academic and moral high ground, a position that allows it to lean on the pillar of virtue in defense of any scandal. When we win, we do it right. When we lose, we still do it right. Whether it continues to adhere fully to those standards—or whether those standards are realistic in a sport that stands on the cusp of turning quasi-professional—is less clear.
In early 2000, I spent several months reporting a story on the uneasy relationship between the Notre Dame football program and the school's admissions office. The school had recently rejected a number of high-profile recruits including quarterback Carson Palmer, who went on to win the Heisman Trophy at USC. There seemed little doubt that Notre Dame's rigid admissions standards were keeping out some very good athletes.
In 2012, I was back in South Bend for a story chronicling the renaissance of the program. The school's central message had not changed: Football players live with and attend class with regular students. We do it the right way. True enough ... but there were signs that the culture surrounding student-athletes at Notre Dame more closely resembled that of other football superpowers. A football player had been accused of assault by a student at a nearby women's college, and Notre Dame had, in the best possible interpretation, moved slowly to investigate. (The young woman, Lizzy Seeberg, committed suicide; the player, Prince Shembo, was not charged and is now a rookie with the Falcons.) Notre Dame did not bulldoze its holy Grotto, but it looked and felt a little more like others chasing national titles. And perhaps this was the only way, because Notre Dame's name recognition with 17-year-old recruits has long been usurped by other schools after too many mediocre seasons.
It is logical to wonder if Notre Dame has compromised its principles. Jenkins says it has not, but football admissions is a vast gray area at all levels of the sport. (Former head coach Lou Holtz resurrected the program with the help of quarterback Tony Rice, who was admitted as a partial qualifier and had to sit out a year of football. Rice, it should be noted, graduated in 1990 with a degree in psychology.)
Soon enough the university will know the cost of this latest incident. The record book is sacred at Notre Dame, and it might soon be filled with the type of asterisks usually found elsewhere. Either way this much is certain: It's not Utopia.
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PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY DARROW
Tarnished Domers Russell, Williams, Daniels and Moore (clockwise from top left) are accused of academic dishonesty.