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If Notre Dame can’t stay clean, who can?

Updated: September 20, 2014 6:21AM



Notre Dame always has viewed itself as the ideal of how academics and athletics should coexist.

Raising the question: If the Irish can’t make this work, who can?

Leading to the much broader question: Why do we keep going along with the charade of big-time college football being anything other than a huge business built on the backs of very human young men, many of whom want nothing to do with school?

As Notre Dame sifts through its latest problem — the university is investigating whether four football players were involved in academic fraud — this is a good time to ask, again, why institutions of higher learning are connected to something that has little to do with education.

OK, besides the millions of dollars that football brings to those schools.

I’m not naïve. I know it’s all about the money. But it seems to me that the Irish scandal is another example of why the academics-athletics model at big schools has never worked and never will.

The inherent tension between education and winning is no more apparent than at Notre Dame. The good people in South Bend want learning to be the most important thing at the university. That desire is one of the reasons why it’s such a good school. But those same people want a great football team, as well. It’s almost impossible to have the latter and be completely clean.

We know this because Notre Dame has tried and can’t do it.

ND does things right — that’s its battle cry, and there’s a lot of truth in it. But doing things right doesn’t always work in an environment geared toward national championships. Coaches at top football schools have to pretend they care about education when they care only about eligibility. Everything that has happened at Notre Dame falls at the feet of coach Brian Kelly, who expressed shock at the alleged cheating scandal inside his program. Why he would be shocked, I have no idea. This type of thing happens at all the big programs, and when Notre Dame made the conscious decision to try to be the best in football, it became like everybody else.

We don’t have time to list all the schools that have had scandals over the years — and many more scandals than the Irish have had. We’d need lots of ink and lots of keystrokes. So let’s stick with Notre Dame, the school currently dealing with its public embarrassment and the school that holds itself to a higher standard.

It’s fair to say that many of the problems the Irish have had the last few years wouldn’t have happened or would have been handled differently if the pressure to win was less. Maybe a clearer head would have realized that having film of everything that moves on a practice field isn’t necessary and therefore that having a kid up in a tower while the wind howls isn’t such a good idea.

Maybe school decision-makers would have realized that some players aren’t Notre Dame material academically and refused to admit them. Maybe the powers that be at the school would have handled a sexual-assault allegation in a more compassionate way toward the alleged victim instead of worrying about the football player involved and the school’s reputation.

No matter how high-minded a university is about academics and integrity, if it’s committed to the pursuit of football championships, football usually wins. To its credit, Notre Dame will call out its athletes for academic fraud where other schools won’t with theirs — hello, North Carolina basketball and football. That apparent nobility is also ND’s problem in the dirty world of big-time athletics.

The NCAA and the major conferences are moving toward stipends for basketball and football players, not out of the goodness of their hearts but because they can see the courts eventually will make them. Many of these kids should be paid like the professionals they are. It’s obscene that Alabama coach Nick Saban will earn $6.9 million this year while his players will earn nothing. Those players make tons of money for the university. The same goes for the players at Notre Dame.

Why do we continue to attach football to colleges? Tradition. School pride. The shared experience of spending a beautiful fall day watching the alma mater play. All that good stuff. But what goes on behind the scenes, the making of the sausage, is not so good.

Football and education: It’s too often an unholy alliance, even at holier-than-thou Notre Dame.



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