The Gold and Blue Loses a Bit of Its Luster
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — A celebration was planned Tuesday for the once and future king of college football.
As Notre Dame embarked on its 127th season, it unveiled new uniforms provided by the relatively young outfitter Under Armour as part of what was billed as the most valuable apparel deal in college sports history. The gold and blue is slick yet traditional, precisely on message, advertising Notre Dame’s ability to compete in the contemporary game while flaunting its glorious past.
But at the last minute, Notre Dame and Under Armour pulled Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick and Kevin Plank, the Under Armour founder, from the festivities. They would not participate in Notre Dame’s annual football media day, for few questions would concern the uniforms.
Instead, the university remained partly in damage-control mode carrying over from Friday afternoon, when it was revealed that four football players — all probable starters — were suspected of being among several students who had cheated in class.
The allegations were not of the magnitude of the recent, sprawling fraud charges at North Carolina, but they were jarring nonetheless. College sports officials throughout the country are under fire from critics who contend that they are unable to run sports as a big business while maintaining academic integrity.
The issue is also notable because Notre Dame football stands apart in many ways. It is the only university that commands its own network television deal. It has the only major program that remains independent. And it demands unusually rigorous academic performance compared with other top programs.
“I’ve said this, and we say it in recruiting: It’s harder at Notre Dame,” Coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday. “But if it was easy, then it wouldn’t be special. That’s why Notre Dame is special.”
The scandal could even be evidence that college sports have passed a point of no return. If it could happen at Notre Dame, the thinking goes, it could happen anywhere.
“The recent proposed restructuring of the N.C.A.A. will not reduce the competition” for top players; “it will enhance it,” David J. Schmidly, a former president of Texas Tech, Oklahoma State and New Mexico, said Monday, referring to the new autonomy granted to the so-called Big 5 conferences and Notre Dame. “That increases the likelihood of people cutting corners.”
He added, “I don’t think any institution is immune.”
In fact, cheating is not new here; the starting quarterback Everett Golson was suspended last fall for what he called “poor judgment on a test.” But Notre Dame’s supporters embrace the belief that the program has not fallen prey to the forces that have left other universities with tattered academic reputations. Many still take in earnest the alma mater’s declaration that “glory’s mantle cloaks thee.”
“It’s man bites dog when it happens here,” said John Gaski, a business professor and alumnus who serves on the faculty board on athletics.
Even Golson, a senior who has a year of eligibility remaining after this season, articulated this Notre Dame exceptionalism. Noting on Monday that he “could’ve gone somewhere else” after being suspended, he said: “What this school represents, it just lined up for me to come back. The mentality and, I guess, ideology of hard work. Nothing’s going to be easy here.”
He added, “You go through it, and you’re becoming a better student, becoming a better athlete, and ultimately just becoming a better man.”
Notre Dame announced Friday in a statement that four players were being held out of practice and competition, though not suspended, pending an investigation into “suspected academic dishonesty,” including submitting “papers and homework that had been written for them by others.” The university also notified the N.C.A.A. and pledged to vacate any tainted wins — which could include some from its 2012 season, its most successful in nearly two decades.
At a news conference Friday, the Rev. John Jenkins, the university president, said there was no evidence that Kelly or any of his staff had known about any possible acts of cheating and that the investigation was under the purview of academic, not athletic, officials.
“At any university, you’re dealing with young people,” Jenkins said. “Young people sometimes make bad decisions. Our job is to hold them accountable.”
The players, who are still on scholarship, have dined with the rest of the team but have not been in meetings, Kelly said Monday. There is “no clarity” on when they will return.
Notre Dame enjoys outsized national popularity, which stems from an almost mythic history, more than a dozen national championships and its status as Catholics’ gridiron standard-bearer. NBC shows eight games per season. Notre Dame sells the fourth most licensed apparel behind Texas, Alabama and Michigan, according to a Collegiate Licensing Company study that omitted only Ohio State and Oregon.
At the same time, Notre Dame is extremely well regarded academically. In 2013, it finished in a typically high position in the N.C.A.A.’s academic rankings; its football players’ graduation success rate of 93 percent tied with Stanford’s and trailed only Northwestern’s and Boston College’s among top football universities.
“The academic rigor is unbelievable,” said Corey Robinson, a sophomore wide receiver who is a son of the Basketball Hall of Famer David Robinson.
He added: “You have to go back and do the same amount of work as your roommates — here we room with non-football players our first year. I go back to my dorm, and my roommates are complaining about work they have to do, but they have 12 hours to do it, whereas I only have like three or four hours.”
There is even evidence that Notre Dame’s reputation for strictness is a recruiting advantage.
“They tell you expectations are high, and you will be held to a higher standard there,” said Sheldon Day, a junior defensive lineman. “My mom was sitting in the meetings, and they kind of got her heart as soon as they said academics were high.”
At his nearly hourlong news conference Tuesday, Kelly was flanked by three mannequins wearing Notre Dame’s new home, away and Shamrock Series uniforms. The Shamrock Series version, which will be used Sept. 13 against Purdue, has the Notre Dame logo plastered onto the familiar gold helmet as well as several other flashy accouterments.
But Kelly got the talk of the new uniforms out of the way within two minutes. The session focused more on injuries and the new defensive system than on the four players being investigated.
The scandal’s consequences could be confined to the field — where Notre Dame may lose key players, including wide receiver DaVaris Daniels and cornerback KeiVarae Russell, as it plays what some say is one of college football’s toughest schedules.
Paul McGinn, a professor of chemical engineering who heads the faculty senate and roomed with football players at Notre Dame almost four decades ago, said he doubted the university’s academics had been tarnished substantially.
“I’d be shocked beyond belief,” he said. “It’s just not something I think could or would happen here.”
A version of this article appears in print on August 20, 201