Monday, Notre Dame announced that 16 student-athletes would be spending three weeks in South Africa, earning credits in a new study abroad program examining the cultural, historical and social effects racism has had on South Africa. Five more will be going to Greece, learning about archaeological sites and museums in Ancient Corinth.
Of all the recent headlines garnering attention in the world of major college athletics, press releases like these tend to go straight to the recycling bin. Students-athletes acting like students? Isn’t there a unionization effort to discuss or a pay-for-play plan that gets people excited?
There are many broken parts to the NCAA’s amateurism model. But ignoring some of the virtues that come from a free collegiate experience is just as destructive as avoiding the charade some major college athletic departments have become.
Notre Dame isn’t just sending a slew of walk-ons and benchwarmers to make the university look good. Of the 21 athletes setting sail for far off places, nearly half are football players. Jaylon Smith, Corey Robinson and Jerry Tillery are among the contingency going to South Africa. Max Redfield and Romeo Okwara are going to Greece.
But for as hard as Notre Dame is working to balance a first-rate academic experience with elite collegiate athletics, it’s failures have garnered far more headlines that trips like this. So while the university proudly (and understandably) continues to trumpet its successes, most eyes only focus on the high-profile mistakes that have taken place over the past few years.
Very high profile.
Everett Golson followed up his national-championship debut season with a season-long (fall semester) suspension from the university for an Honor Code violation.
Last season’s basketball hero Jerian Grant was pulled from the floor and school at the semester break after his own mistake.
The hockey team’s top-scoring defenseman, Robbie Russo, was lost for the same amount of time because of his own poor judgment.
And that’s before KeiVarae Russell, DaVaris Daniels, Ishaq Williams and Eilar Hardy were taken down during the two-month investigation that led to lost seasons and multiple-semester suspensions for most of the group.
Some of the school’s most prominent athletes, all caught up in embarrassing academic failures. (You can’t blame journalists from seizing on the opportunity with a misguided take-down column.) But those academic failures were a two-way street, forcing the university to look at the growing divide between the academic profile of student-athletes and the rest of the student body.
“When we recruit student-athletes, we have an obligation to provide them with the resources necessary,” head coach Brian Kelly told Sports Illustrated. “And if we don’t, then we have fallen short. And I think that in these instances, there’s culpability for everyone.”
While the story was a profile on KeiVarae Russell, Pete Thamel’s reporting uncovered some changes taking place at Notre Dame, reacting to the struggles and high-profile mistakes that have been happening all too often. And while there was no official comment out of the university to expand on SI’s reporting, it’s clear that both the athletic department and the university leadership has learned from the mistakes made by both the student-athletes and those struggling to provide the resources for them to succeed both on and off the field.
In Kelly’s conversation with Sports Illustrated, Notre Dame’s head coach pegged the average GPA of his incoming freshman class at 2.8 with a score of 24 on the ACT. Compare that to the freshman class’s average ACT score of 33 (Notre Dame doesn’t track GPA for incoming freshmen, but it’s certainly a full letter grade above a 2.8). It’s not hard to see the great divide.
Adding to that divide is a workload for Notre Dame football players that’s beyond significant. Talking with former and current football players, a routine day was often times 15-hours from alarm clock to pillow, including a full class load, organized study hours, lifting, film study and practice that command far more time than any NCAA 20-hour weekly limit can fully encapsulate.
As Irish fans seethed throughout the two-month investigation and lengthy appeals process that ate up much of the 2014 season, Notre Dame’s administration took an honest look at their role in this dilemma. And it appears that they took dead aim at fixing some of the problems facing student-athletes, especially those coming from “at-risk” academic profiles.
From Sports Illustrated:
In the spring of 2014, Swarbrick co-chaired a 17-member task force created to examine effective ways to support “at-risk student-athletes.” The takeaways proved more evolutionary than revolutionary, focusing on intensive individualized attention, a stronger summer bridge program, expansion of a writing and rhetoric tutorial, and faculty mentors. Faculty athletic representative Patricia Bellia, a law professor who was the task force’s other chair, says the process made the school realize it needs to take a “case management” approach to each student, with information pooled from trainers, assistant coaches, nutritionists and anyone close to them. “We’ve determined they can succeed [by admitting them],” she said. “How can we make that happen on an individual level? What kind of support and resources does that individual need?”
For all the talk of Kelly’s frustration with the process last fall, the reality sounds to be quite the opposite. Working alongside athletic director Jack Swarbrick and university president Rev. John Jenkins, Kelly talked about the “transformative conversations” that took place, a mind-blowing concept for those who remember the Notre Dame ruled by Monk Malloy and former admissions director Dan Saracino.
“We’ve done so many things here to put Notre Dame back in a position to compete nationally, and I kind of look at this as that last piece in making sure we’re taking care of our student-athletes,” Kelly told SI. “It strengthened my resolve in, We’re going to get this right.”
What that entails remains to be seen. The worry of diluting a Notre Dame degree is a real one. And there’s no desire to create a “general studies” major like the one at Michigan that Jim Harbaugh so famously torched while he was Stanford’s head coach.
When asked for expanded clarity on the university’s task force, a spokesman for the football program preferred to let the article speak for itself.
But 15 years ago, Notre Dame was insulting student-athletes—elite players like T.J. Duckett and future Heisman Trophy winner Carson Palmer, who was ready to commit to Notre Dame on the spot. Now they’re trying to find a way to balance the challenges of the academic course work with the rigors of playing major college football.
That’s quite a change. And one for the better.
“Are there other ways to do it?” Kelly asks. “Can we cut back on credit hours? Instead of taking 15 [the current practice to start a semester], can we take 12 and make it up in the summer? Are there other course offerings that could come about and be offered in lieu of a specific class? Those are conversations that had never taken place.”