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The National Collegiate Athletic Association announced Tuesday that the University of Notre Dame must vacate two years of football wins, including those from a season in which the team competed for a national title, after a student athletic trainer completed class assignments for several football players in nearly two dozen courses.

Notre Dame is appealing the penalty, however, arguing that the punishment is “unjustified,” as no university officials were involved in the academic misconduct.

“We believe that imposition of the vacation-of-records penalty without seriously underlying institutional misconduct will not primarily punish those responsible for the misconduct, but rather will punish coaches, student-athletes and indeed the entire institution who did nothing wrong, and with regard to this case, did everything right,” John Jenkins, president of Notre Dame, said in a statement. The university does not dispute the NCAA's other sanctions stemming from the case, which include a $5,000 fine and one year of probation.

The crux of Notre Dame’s argument is that the athletic trainer was a student who just “happened to participate in the university’s student trainer program” at the time of the misconduct, not an employee who was trusted with the athletes’ academic or athletic success.

When Notre Dame officials became aware of the cheating, they suspended all of the players and later dismissed four of them, imposing grade changes in the affected courses. By changing the affected grades, the university retroactively declared the athletes ineligible, prompting the NCAA’s decision to vacate any wins in which the players participated. Vacating those records, Notre Dame argues, constrains the institution’s “autonomy over student academic misconduct,” and “sends a disturbing message to the [NCAA] membership.”

According to the NCAA’s report, the university made this argument during the infractions process, as well. The association’s Division I Committee on Infractions disagreed.

“The institution advances the argument that purely academic decisions by an institution could be affected or influenced with the incentive to consider potential NCAA infractions ramifications as it shapes its honor code,” the panel wrote in its report. “The institution's obligation to report such instances exists regardless of any potential penalty consequences. Moreover, the panel, on behalf of the membership, is mindful that institutions should do the right thing regardless of whatever potential NCAA infractions penalties or consequences may result due to any purported academic misconduct. That academic misconduct may implicate potential NCAA violations or penalties does not mean that the NCAA somehow encroaches on purely academic determinations made by a member institution.”

According to the report, the university also argued that the punishment was “discretionary and should not be applied in this case.” While it’s true that vacating wins is not a mandatory punishment, the panel wrote, “prescribing vacation as a penalty in cases involving academic misconduct is historically consistent with the membership's bylaws.”

The NCAA pointed to several other instances in which an institution was ordered to vacate winning records after academic fraud occurred, including cases at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette in 2016, Southern Methodist University and Syracuse University in 2015, and East Carolina University in 2011. (Academic fraud is also currently being investigated at the University of Missouri at Columbia, where The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that a former tutor is charging that she took entire courses and exams for athletes.)

Many of those cases involved college officials, coaches or assistants, however. The East Carolina case, both Notre Dame and the NCAA acknowledged, was closest to the misconduct at the Notre Dame. East Carolina had several wins vacated after a student hired by the athletic department as an academic tutor committed academic fraud with four athletes.

Notre Dame argued that even these cases contain important distinctions -- namely that the student at East Carolina was an academic tutor, while the student at Notre Dame was an athletic trainer.

“However, neither the applicable bylaws nor official interpretations or educational columns make such a distinction,” the infractions panel wrote in its report. “The panel agrees with the institution that the East Carolina case is analogous to this case, but is unpersuaded that a different result should obtain merely because one student was an academic tutor and the other was an athletic trainer. Both were institutional staff members at the time they committed their violations.”

David Ridpath, professor of sports administration at Ohio University and president of the Drake Group, an organization pushing for more emphasis on academics in college sports, said Notre Dame’s argument was “splitting hairs.”

“It doesn’t matter where the fraud comes from,” Ridpath said. “Athletic trainer, strength coach, academic tutor, whoever it may be, it’s academic fraud. I don’t see how you can honestly separate that out at the end of the day. It’s textbook academic fraud. Then again, so is the case at the University of North Carolina.”

In September, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill told the NCAA that it does not have the authority to punish the university for what is widely seen as the most egregious case of academic fraud in the history of intercollegiate athletics. For 18 years, some employees at UNC Chapel Hill knowingly steered about 3,000 students toward no-show “paper courses” that never met, were not taught by any faculty members and in which the only work required was a single research paper that received a high grade no matter the content.

UNC's argument: the NCAA has no jurisdiction over assessing the quality of an institution's courses, even when those courses were fake and involved more than 1,500 athletes.

For decades, the NCAA has laid out what counts as academic misconduct, clearly barring college employees from completing athletes’ course work for them, for example, and banning any “knowing involvement in arranging for fraudulent academic credit or false transcripts” for athletes. The association has punished Division I institutions at least 15 times for academic fraud in just the last decade, and half a dozen times in the past two years.

The association's members are now debating what role the NCAA should continue to play in punishing academic fraud. Earlier this year, the NCAA's Division I Council adopted new rules designed to update its academic integrity policies for the first time since 1983.

Colleges must now “maintain and adhere to written academic integrity policies that apply to the entire student body.” If a college breaks its own rules, the NCAA would consider that to be a case of academic misconduct. At the same time, the new rule redefines “impermissible academic assistance” as “academic conduct involving a staff member or booster that falls outside of a school’s academic misconduct policies, provides a substantial impact on the student-athlete’s eligibility and is not the type of academic assistance” generally available to all students.

UNC argues that its misconduct does not meet these parameters and that the case is “beyond the NCAA’s purview,” as it concerns “fundamental institutional, not athletic, integrity.” In other words, it’s not the NCAA’s jurisdiction to determine how rigorous a course is. Notre Dame’s argument is similar, Ridpath said, in that it claims the fraud should be handled by the university as an honor code violation, not by the NCAA as an athletic issue, because the staff member who committed the fraud was still a student.

"It was student-on-student cheating," Brian Kelly, Notre Dame's head football coach, said during a news conference Tuesday, calling the sanction excessive. "There was nobody implicated. The NCAA agreed across the board with that finding. So we're going to appeal this."

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