The bombshell that was the Notre Dame cheating scandal is going on two weeks old right now. For many, the idea that Notre Dame would be involved in an academic fraud scandal is mind-boggling. Recent success or not, Notre Dame is the model of consistency and integrity that all other college athletic departments are measured against.
For many others, this was karma. Notre Dame is in a select group of sports entities in America. Like the Yankees, Cowboys and Lakers, you either love the Irish or hate them — and there is no middle ground.
Naturally, the haters outnumber the true Notre Dame fans and supporters. For that reason, any dirt you can toss on the program is magnified by the not-so-silent majority. When it comes to digging up and dumping dirt on the Irish, the general public prefers a backhoe and dump truck when a shovel and wheel barrel will do just fine.
When a high-profile incident happens at such a high profile place like Notre Dame, one of the first things we tend to think about is the public image and how it all impacts recruiting. Unlike the Manti Te’o incident, this was not about the behavior and actions of a single player that had no impact on the field or the classroom. We are talking about the appearance of organizational misconduct involving football and academics — the two pillars that hold up the University of Notre Dame in the eyes of the public.
As with almost anything, we can project a final outcome or something close to it by researching history. In this case, we can use recent history. The Notre Dame academic fraud scandal, no matter how you spin it, pales in comparison to the Jerry Sandusky ordeal at Penn State. You have two similar “squeaky-clean” institutions athletically and academically, but at the end of the day, Penn State set the bar for what we now call a scandal. The NCAA followed up with penalties that many thought would cripple the Penn State football program.
Fast-forward to today and we see that the sanctions levied by the NCAA weren’t the death penalty many thought Penn State was getting initially. Additionally, it looks as though public perception of the penalties against both the program and institution is changing.
In the beginning, the public wanted blood. Now, it looks like popular opinion is starting to sway toward the mindset that the penalties were too harsh, given who the sanctions actually hurt. Through it all, Penn State football never lost its die-hard fans and followers. Saturdays in State College didn’t change. The stadium is still full and the team is still winning games. On top of that, it’s looking like the Nittany Lions could pull in a Top 5 recruiting class in 2015 with still another season of sanctions to go.
After all knees were jerked and all smoke had cleared, Penn State football landed on two feet because, quite simply, it was too big to fail. There isn’t a bigger college football presence in the Northeastern United States in terms of fans and followers, even if there are more haters than fans. The end result was only a reduction in the number of scholarship players, not the quality of recruits.
I believe this will also be the case at Notre Dame. For one, I doubt the NCAA levies any sanctions so long as Notre Dame remains transparent and vigilant in the process. The dismissal of certain players may lead to a loss here or there, but they won’t be the difference in whether or not Notre Dame makes a College Football Playoff appearance.
In terms of recruiting, Notre Dame is still Notre Dame. Cheating happens everywhere, even our military academies and Ivy League schools. It doesn’t devalue a diploma, nor does it reduce the wow factor of having a scout in a Notre Dame jacket show up at your high school game and then later in your living room.
It certainly does nothing to dull the shine on those golden helmets.
What many fail to understand about Notre Dame, the Yankees, the Cowboys and the Lakers, is that regardless of present success and health of the overall program, wearing those uniforms is symbolic of reaching the pinnacle of the sport — regardless of whether or not you root for them. There are programs and teams with as much historical prestige, but not many with more. Notre Dame is a brand that stands on its own and nothing short of a death penalty will ever change that.
I had a few casual conversations recently with some parents of prospective college football players. I asked them straight-up about the issue at Notre Dame and whether or not it would have any impact on deciding whether or not their kid attends the school. One father said quite simply “It’s Notre Dame.” That’s not exactly a scientific study, but as a parent myself — and not a Notre Dame fan — I share the same sentitments. When Notre Dame comes calling, you sit up, take notice and listen to everything they put on the table — perhaps even more so than your local state school.
Because it’s Notre Dame and the actions of a handful of student-athletes and tutors do absolutely nothing to change that.