Notre Dame appeals NCAA sanctions over academic misconduct – Inside Higher Ed

 In Sports
The National Collegiate Athletic Association announced Tuesday that the University of Notre Dame must vacate two years of football wins, including those from a season in which the team competed for a national title, after a student athletic trainer completed class assignments for several football players in nearly two dozen courses.

Notre Dame is appealing the penalty, however, arguing that the punishment is “unjustified,” as no university officials were involved in the academic misconduct. At a news conference Tuesday, Brian Kelly, Notre Dame’s head football coach, said the misconduct was “student-on-student cheating” and that the sanctions were excessive.

“We believe that imposition of the vacation-of-records penalty without seriously underlying institutional misconduct will not primarily punish those responsible for the misconduct, but rather will punish coaches, student-athletes and indeed the entire institution who did nothing wrong, and with regard to this case, did everything right,” John Jenkins, president of Notre Dame, said in a statement. The university does not dispute the NCAA’s other sanctions stemming from the case, which include a $5,000 fine and one year of probation.

The crux of Notre Dame’s argument is that the athletic trainer was a student who just “happened to participate in the university’s student trainer program” at the time of the misconduct, not an employee who was trusted with the athletes’ academic or athletic success.

When Notre Dame officials became aware of the cheating, they suspended all of the players and later dismissed four of them, imposing grade changes in the affected courses. By changing the affected grades, the university retroactively declared the athletes ineligible, prompting the NCAA’s decision to vacate any wins in which the players participated. Vacating those records, Notre Dame argues, constrains the institution’s “autonomy over student academic misconduct,” and “sends a disturbing message to the [NCAA] membership.”

According to the NCAA’s report, the university made this argument during the infractions process, as well. The association’s Division I Committee on Infractions disagreed.

“The institution advances the argument that purely academic decisions by an institution could be affected or influenced with the incentive to consider potential NCAA infractions ramifications as it shapes its honor code,” the panel wrote in its report. “The institution’s obligation to report such instances exists regardless of any potential penalty consequences. Moreover, the panel, on behalf of the membership, is mindful that institutions should do the right thing regardless of whatever potential NCAA infractions penalties or consequences may result due to any purported academic misconduct. That academic misconduct may implicate potential NCAA violations or penalties does not mean that the NCAA somehow encroaches on purely academic determinations made by a member institution.”

According to the report, the university also argued that the punishment was “discretionary and should not be applied in this case.” While it’s true that vacating wins is not a mandatory punishment, the panel wrote, “prescribing vacation as a penalty in cases involving academic misconduct is historically consistent with the membership’s bylaws.”

The NCAA pointed to several other instances in which an institution was ordered to vacate winning records after academic fraud occurred, including cases at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette in 2016, Southern Methodist University and Syracuse University in 2015, and East Carolina University in 2011.

Many of those cases involved college officials, coaches or assistants, however. The East Carolina case, both Notre Dame and the NCAA acknowledged, was closest to the misconduct at the Notre Dame. East Carolina had several wins vacated after a student hired by the athletic department as an academic tutor committed academic fraud with four athletes.

Notre Dame argued that even these cases contain important distinctions — namely that the student at East Carolina was an academic tutor, while the student at Notre Dame was an athletic trainer.

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