Brian Kelly

Notre Dame football’s deadly sin

Old joke: How do you know someone went to Notre Dame? Don’t worry, they’ll tell you.

If you know any Notre Dame football fans, you’ll know that the same goes for their opinion of the program’s academic standards. Rarely does a conversation about the Fighting Irish’s place in the sport’s landscape pass by without Golden Domers reminding you that unlike the rest of the nation’s football factories, their players are actual students.

The latest allegations of academic misconduct by some members of the ND football team prove just how right they are. As is the case with actual college students around the United States, some Irish football players appear to be cheating in school.

The difference, of course, is that your next door neighbors might be humiliated when the apple of their eye gets booted for copying a term paper. When it happens to an ND football player, you find hundreds of thousands of Irish Catholic football fans wallowing in the institution’s uncompromising integrity: “If only we played by the SEC’s rules, yada…”

Students are going to cheat in school from now until the end of time. It’s a natural outcome in a society that increasingly leans on educational achievement and the imprimatur of prestigious institutions such as Notre Dame to sort out its winners and losers.

In the world of major college athletics, schools are now reaping the benefits of such academic impropriety. By tying eligibility to classroom performance, the schools have clear incentives to see that athletes – many of whom are woefully unprepared for college-level course work – make their grades. Meanwhile, the NCAA has doubled down by publicizing the graduation rates of its member institutions and penalizing programs that fail to meet arbitrary Academic Progress Rate (APR) scores designed to illustrate athletes’ advancement towards graduation.

In other words, the rewards that flow through to colleges for grade inflation and classroom shenanigans have never been greater. Nor have the ways for schools to promote their athletes’ level of achievement. Despite their glaring flaws, elite institutions can now point to these statistics as proof of their dedication to educating their athletes and seeing them excel academically.

Against that backdrop, you can imagine just how proud Notre Dame is of its APR scores. And apparently the Fighting Irish “dominated” everyone else in graduation rates.

There’s nothing wrong with encouraging students to learn – we’re talking about schools, after all. From a cultural point of view, however, ND and any other institution that prides itself on athletes’ educational achievement should consider what they’re really encouraging when it becomes part of branding and marketing.

After a while, it stops being about learning and starts being about pride. Even the worst catechism student knows what that means.