The possibility of sanctions to our respected rivals USC and Michigan makes me flashback to Notre Dame’s only major NCAA sanction in its history a decade ago. Call it PTSD, but the similarities and obvious dissimilarities combined with the agony of the process haunt me.
Notre Dame’s NCAA Infractions, 1999
The majority of Notre Dame’s NCAA violations involved a South Bend bookkeeper, Kimberly Dunbar, who used an estimated $1.4 million she embezzled from her employer from 1991 to 1998 to create a lavish lifestyle for herself, including access to Notre Dame players. Dunbar became romantically involved with several football players and had a child with one of them. The players received benefits such as jewelry and trips.
Unfortunately, in 1995, Dunbar paid $25 to become a member of the Quarterback Club, a group for Irish football fans who met for a $12 lunch on the Friday before football games. Members heard coaches or players speak. Notre Dame had explained to members the NCAA rules committee that defined them as boosters, though no fund-raising was ever done.
As a member of the Quarterback Club, the NCAA regarded Dunbar as a representative of Notre Dame’s football interests, which fell under their rules severely restricting gift-giving to student-athletes.
When Notre Dame heard of the allegations, they launched an internal investigation, self-reported the possible violations, disbanded the Quarterback Club and ones like it in other sports, cooperated fully with the NCAA investigation, and required players to pay back the $75 ticket to a Bulls game Dunbar had paid for.
A football coach on two different occasions had heard Dunbar and one of the players went to Las Vegas on a trip, but did not report it to ND ’s Compliance Office because each thought it amounted to a romantic getaway. They had no idea Dunbar was part of the Quarterback Club.
After three years of investigations, allegations and stories in the media with recriminations, the University and the NCAA enforcement staff came to the same conclusion—the transgressions were secondary violations. The Infractions Committee was split on whether Dunbar was a booster, with an overseer’s vote breaking the tie, effectively deciding that Notre Dame had committed a major infraction.
Committee chair, Jack Friedenthal, said of the Irish coach’s knowledge of the trips, “If he had notified someone, then penalties might well have been averted.” Friedenthal commended the University for reporting and investigating the violations. He also told the NY Times , “We didn’t find any lack of responsibility. They were not charged with lack of institutional control.”
The NCAA Infractions Committee’s public report found “this case to be ‘major’ in nature because of the length of time during which these violations occurred, the extravagant nature of the gifts and benefits provided to Notre Dame football student athletes by the individual, the competitive advantage gained by Notre Dame and the fact that the violations were neither isolated nor inadvertent.”
The penalty was a loss of one scholarship each year for two years and probation for the same time.
Notre Dame’s Reaction
Notre Dame did not appeal or offer excuses. Father Edward (Monk) Malloy, then President of Notre Dame, said in a prepared statement : ”We are embarrassed by these incidents, troubled that they occurred, and we have taken action to deal with the issues involved. Notre Dame has a proud tradition in athletics, not only for doing well but also for doing right.”
To the student newspaper, The Observer , Malloy said : “A jury of our peers said that it was major and they gave us a penalty. We will accept this and move on.”
Malloy told the NY Times how he felt: ”My reaction is one of sadness and disappointment. It really began when we found out about this because we felt we had failed as educators. From that moment until today, we have done everything we could to find out all the information and have taken very aggressive steps to make sure it won’t happen again. So this is sad closure, and we are concentrating on the future.”
Malloy also indicated that the behavior of Notre Dame’s football players would be reflected in the coaches’ annual performance evaluations.
While the agony of charges investigated, the difficulty of controlling fringe elements to big-time football programs and the disagreement on the Infractions Committee’s decision may sound familiar 10 years later, much has changed in college football programs—more money, more vocal fan bases, more pressure to win, boosters welding greater power, some players even less focused on achieving an education.
The Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics report—”A Call to Action "—said in 2001 (co-chaired by Fr. Hesburgh): “We find that the problems of big-time college sports have grown rather than diminished. The most glaring elements of the problems outlined in this report—academic transgressions, a financial arms race, and commercialization—are all evidence of the widening chasm between higher education’s ideals and big-time college sports.”
How many universities and fans regard the NCAA as “comprised of institutions, conferences, organizations and individuals committed to the best interests, education and athletics participation of student-athletes?” Or in Malloy’s words, “a jury of our peers,” when Infractions Committee decisions are made.
The Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics was formed 15 years ago in response to some highly-visible scandals in college sports. At this week’s conference responding to the announcement of five major NCAA infractions by the Michigan football program, Mary Sue Coleman, Michigan’s President, said , “We will make all necessary changes. What we will not do is make excuses.” Coleman is a trustee of the Knight Foundation and signatory to “A Call To Action.”
Notre Dame, USC, and Michigan each encompass different NCAA compliance issues, each are ultimately judged on how they responded to the allegations and the NCAA decisions. More troubling is an underlying current of opinion that programs should not be held responsible for such infractions. Malloy and Coleman may now be expressing minority opinions.
The first step in distancing yourself and evading responsibility always seems to be to create a negative, hostile image of those appointed to judge you. Perhaps the second step is to revert to an adversarial approach, appropriate for the courtroom in an O.J.-esque attitude that “our lawyers are better than yours.” All infraction decisions are regarded as too harsh and appealed.
The leadership forward of Steven Sample, USC’s President, is harder to read. USC’s stated compliance policies are not.
Located on the USC football web site under the Compliance section are: the Principles of Institutional Control from the NCAA Committee on Infractions; extensive advice to parents and students defining extra benefits such as use of a car and reduced room cost from any USC employee, booster or parent; contact and inducements by agents and the consequences for the student and the USC athletic program.
The Knight Commission calls on presidents to lead their universities through such problems to “reconnect college sports and higher education.” We’ll all wait to see whether each president will lead their universities and accept responsibility for their infractions, as Monk did: “We will accept this and move on.”
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