Penalties Off the Field: How Notre Dame Handles Disciplinary Issues

Author: Juan Jose Rodriguez, Hunter Kuffel, and Kevin Culligan

Penalties Off the Field: How Notre Dame Handles Disciplinary IssuesJohn Clark & Matt Cashore

The Notre Dame football team dominated news coverage in recent years due to multiple football suspensions — so often that students joke the team has some sort of quota to fill. In this story, Scholastic examines the most recent arrests, and the many others before it. We analyze the effects of these scandals on and off the field, ask whether these are independent events or the results of a pattern, and place these Notre Dame scandals in a national and historical context. Is Notre Dame too tough? Not tough enough? Is it even up to them?

In college football, where roughly a quarter of the roster turns over every year, coaches expect younger players to fill the voids left by those who graduate, and in some cases go on to play professionally.

Sometimes, however, players must be called upon at a moment’s notice, which is a scenario that Notre Dame and the Irish faithful know all too well.

This year is no different.

On the night of Aug. 19, as a majority of first year students arrived on campus, six players were arrested in two separate incidents. Linebacker Te’von Coney, running back Dexter Williams and cornerback Ashton

White, all sophomores, were part of a traffic stop in Fulton County (IN) with senior safety Max Redfield and freshman wide receiver Kevin Stepherson Jr.

The officers allegedly detected and later found marijuana, as well as a handgun, in the car. All five were charged with possession of marijuana, and Redfield faces an additional charge of possessing a handgun without a license. Early the next morning, senior cornerback Devin Butler was arrested in a separate incident outside the Linebacker Lounge in South Bend and charged with battery and resisting arrest.

Head coach Brian Kelly wasted no time imposing discipline on his two seniors. Though all six still await decisions on any additional discipline handed down by the university’s Office of Community Standards, Redfield was dismissed from the team, with Butler suspended indefinitely.Meanwhile, the other four have played the last two games while the investigation continues. When asked in his August 30 presser why he has not suspended the other four, Kelly explained that he has “never suspended a player for a game for a first offense [of marijuana possession].”

“The expectations we set for the members of our team are high, but they are especially so for the upperclassmen who are expected to provide leadership and a positive example to the other members of the team,” Kelly said in his statement issued hours after the incidents. “Max and, at least at this stage in the review of his case, Devin, have failed in that regard and so have lost the privilege of continuing to be part of our team.”

In the season opener, the absences of Butler (due to a previouslysuffered foot injury as well as the suspension) and Redfield in the Irish secondary were painfully apparent. The Irish allowed 50 points to the Longhorns, who amassed 517 yards of offense, including 280 through the air.

“We couldn’t get off the field on a couple of situations [on a] couple of fourth downs. We had a stop where we missed the tackle [and] some opportunities for us to get off the field,” Kelly explained in his Tuesday press conference.

The Irish defense took another hit Saturday against Nevada in the team’s home opener. On the first defensive series of the game, sophomore defensive back Shaun Crawford tore his Achilles trying to break up a pass. While the Irish cruised to a 39-10 win, the win became bittersweet when Kelly announced that Crawford would be out for the season.

As news of the arrests poured in to news stations in the area, many fans angrily clamored for punitive action to be taken by Kelly to discipline Redfield and Butler. While some praised Kelly for his swift action and willingness to hand down punishment when necessary, others criticized the head coach for not going far enough.

Whether it be the crowds of more than 80,000 that pack Notre Dame Stadium for six games every season, the millions more who watch on TV or the countless other groups who follow the Irish so closely that every player’s move is seen under a microscope, many are watching to see whether these young men will perform at a high level and uphold the university’s standards on and off the field. A day before the season opener against Texas and two weeks after his dismissal, Redfield posted the following as a caption on his Instagram account: “Being separated and alienated from my teammates, coaches, fans and more is a burden I am ready to bear although it hurts profoundly every second I think about it or it is brought to my attention.”

While the players have a responsibility to behave, there comes a level of trust placed upon them by the coaches. Players are reportedly allowed to go out as often as they want, with just one restriction that was only imposed in the days immediately following the two incidents: They are not allowed to be seen drinking alcohol in a public setting. The first violation results in the player not playing the next game, while a second means no playing time for the remainder of the season.

The Office of Community Standards will make the final determination on the players’ statuses both with the team and the university as a whole. Formerly the Office of Residential Life, the office rebranded itself in 2013 to be more focused on education and formation rather than punitive discipline. The office strives now more than ever to resolve situations without resorting immediately to discipline if better options are available. Ryan Willerton, Director of the Office of Community Standards, stressed numerous times the importance of avoiding the phrases “punishment,” “sanction,” or “getting in trouble” when referring to cases the office handles. He explained that the mission instead is to educate and protect the campus community.

When asked Thursday how these incidents will affect recruiting from the perspective of both staff and players, Kelly responded, “Tell me a kid who hasn’t made a mistake, you know? I look at it as that we hold our players accountable and responsible, and we’ll continue to do that. We’ve got good kids here, and if they make a mistake we hold them accountable and responsible.”

Kelly, a father of four, added that the emotional impact of disciplining a player is quite similar to a parent punishing a child. “Like any parent [knows, there is] a different range of emotions from disappointment to, you know, obviously one of responsibility.”

On Aug. 21, a day after the incidents,’s Bruce Feldman wrote of Kelly and his system of discipline: “This is just the latest example of ND showing it’s not scared to send a message if a player does the wrong thing. In this case it was Kelly who, word is, after he’d warned his guys coming out of training camp, ‘Don’t screw up. Don’t be that guy.’” Feldman also tweeted that day, “It’s easy to be cynical when it comes to discipline & CFB these days, but #NotreDame has shown repeatedly it doesn’t give it lip service.”

How Do We Compare?

A natural question raised from seeing such frequent disciplinary action is, “Is this normal? How tough is Notre Dame on its players compared to other schools?” It’s a very complex question, so let’s break it down. When we say “Notre Dame,” we’re really talking about two entities: Notre Dame as a university and Notre Dame as a college football program.

Both parties have their own processes of discipline. The university will step in if it feels that any student-athlete has violated the Student Code of Conduct and enact their disciplinary procedure through the Office of Community Standards. The student’s athlete status has no bearing on this procedure.

The football program can also handle matters of discipline internally if those in charge believe that a player isn’t measuring up to the standards set by the coaching staff. Coach Kelly has said on multiple occasions that he has high standards for his players.

Those are the two parts of the process that Notre Dame can control, but there are several other facets that they can’t. Players also answer to local law enforcement and, in rare cases, the NCAA and the ACC.

On one side of the conversation, it’s simpler to make comparisons since it’s so much easier to find data. For instance, one could argue that the college football programs with the biggest discipline problems would be the ones with the most players arrested. This argument has its holes. After all, arrests don’t always lead to charges being filed. But they do allow us to quantify the conversation. Notre Dame has had 11 players arrested in the last five years, including the 6 players arrested in August. The two schools with the highest number in that same time period are the University of Florida, with 28 arrests, and Washington State University, with 34.

This comparison, despite its relative ease, doesn’t adequately answer the question posed. Notre Dame has no control over who gets arrested. The question to answer is if Notre Dame is tougher on its players in the areas over which it has discretion.

From an academic standpoint, a reasonable argument can be made to say it is more difficult to be a Notre Dame football player than it is to be a football player other successful programs. Since Notre Dame is an especially academically rigorous university, it follows that the average semester of classes is more challenging than one at many other schools, and therefore it is more difficult to make grades and retain eligibility.

From a non-academic standpoint, the question is more difficult to answer. The only real way to answer such a question would be to look at all the reports of Notre Dame football players breaking university rules and what sorts of punishments were issued, and then to compare those findings with similar findings from several other competitive football programs. The issue with such a strategy, however, is that such records aren’t accessible to the public.

Notre Dame Security Police is not required by law to make their reports public since they are technically a private entity and not a publicly funded police force. Five states currently require that their private universities make police records public, but Indiana is not among them, and so it isn’t possible to gain an accurate understanding of what punishments are issued to football players unless they are suspended from games.

NDSP’s reticence to release records was held up in St. Joseph Superior Court in April 2015 when an ESPN Outside The Lines reporter sued to have the records released. ESPN lost the suit but quickly appealed, and that appeal process is still ongoing. Although the court ruled in NDSP’s favor, Judge Steven Hostetler expressed discomfort “with the notion that a private party can exercise police powers without providing to the public the access to records.”

In other words, we have no way of knowing what sorts of malfeasance don’t lead to suspensions. If there is no suspension or involvement of any entities other than the Office of Community Standards, NDSP and the football program, we might never know that anything happened at all. This is furthered by the fact that around 80 percent of Notre Dame students live on campus according to the Office of Housing’s website. This means that a great deal of student activity, and by extension, student lawbreaking, is under the purview of NDSP and not the South Bend Police Department.

It’s very difficult to determine if Notre Dame is tougher on its players than the typical school. However, there are a few scattered policies that, while not being nearly broad enough to support any general conclusions, can still tell us something.

If a student-athlete is drug-tested by the NCAA and tests positive for marijuana, said student is immediately banned from competing for 50 percent of the season in all sports in which he or she participates. If a Notre Dame athlete is drug-tested by the university and tests positive for marijuana, said athlete is placed on six months of probation, with announced and unannounced drug tests put in place. A second positive for marijuana by a Notre Dame administered drug test results in a ban from competing for one-third of the season in all sports in which the guilty athlete participates. Marijuana is the only drug for which Notre Dame has such a policy. All of this is according to the Notre Dame Athletic Department Compliance website.

In 2014, the NCAA conducted a study concerning the drug use of student athletes. A random sample of thousands of students across all sports in all three divisions were asked to confidentially answer a litany of questions about their own drug use. Among the Division I football players sampled, 17.4 percent reported using marijuana at least once in the last year. All male athletes reported a higher figure of 24.9 percent, while 16.2 percent of all Division I athletes reported using the drug.

Additionally, Notre Dame’s academic fraud scandals in 2013 and 2014 were both brought to light by internal university investigations, and the suspensions that issued from those investigations were university decisions.

On the contrary, the NCAA has had to step in and place sanctions on several schools across the country over the past decade because the athletic departments were either not punishing players who were cheating or were complicit themselves in the cheating. Examples include Georgia Southern University, which was sanctioned this past July for infractions that occurred in 2013 and 2014, and Florida State University, which conducted an internal investigation that led to the suspension of 23 players in 2007 but was then hit with additional sanctions from the NCAA in 2009.

It’s important to remember that these are isolated incidents, so while it may be tempting to conclude that Notre Dame is tougher on its players because of how it handled academic fraud investigations, such an argument would be weak at best.

A Look Back

The August incidents were by no means the team’s first. Notre Dame football players, throughout history, have committed a number of off-field violations, at times resulting in major on-field ramifications.

The most recent example came in 2014. That August, the University Code of Honor Committee suspended five players due to violations of the school’s academic honor code. Wide receiver DaVaris Daniels, linebacker Kendall Moore, cornerback KeiVarae Russell and defensive end Ishaq Williams all missed the entire 2014 season, while safety Eilar Hardy was cleared to return for the end of the year.

The losses of Russell and Williams, key defensive players, made for a poor defensive season for the Irish. They gave up 29.2 points per game, good for 85th in the nation. Daniels was replaced more effectively on offense by the combination of Corey Robinson, Chris Brown and C.J. Prosise, but the Irish still had a disappointing 8-5 campaign.

Hardy transferred following the season, and Russell returned in 2015 for his senior year. The other four players never played another down of college football.

Matching suspensions crippled the Irish football and men’s basketball teams in 2013, when quarterback Everett Golson was suspended for violating the academic honor code and star point guard Jerian Grant was deemed academically ineligible due to poor grades. The Golson suspension sucked much of the offensive firepower out of a team that had reached the BCS National Championship Game the previous year, but Tommy Rees stepped in to lead the Irish to a respectable 9-4 season. The basketball team, meanwhile, struggled through a 15-17 year.

Golson returned in 2014 for an up and down season that ended in an 8-5 record. He ended up transferring to Florida State for his final season in 2015. In Grant’s senior season, the point guard led the Irish to an ACC Tournament Championship and an appearance in the Elite Eight in his senior season.

In May of 2012, Rees and linebacker Carlo Calabrese were arrested for fleeing an off-campus party when officers arrived and not cooperating. While Calabrese was charged with only a misdemeanor for disorderly conduct, Rees faced four misdemeanor counts — two for resisting law enforcement, one for battery and one for underage drinking.

The two players were each suspended for the first game of the season against Navy, but the team didn’t miss a beat without them as they began their historic 12-0 regular season campaign.

In 2002, a woman accused safety Abram Elam, safety Donald Dykes, defensive back Justin Smith and wide receiver Lorenzo Crawford of raping her at an offcampus house. Elam was the only player who ended up being convicted of criminal charges, however, and he was convicted of sexual battery, a lesser charge. Dykes was acquitted, and the charges against Smith and Crawford were dropped. Still, the university expelled all four players after an investigation. The team rebounded, however, with one of their most successful seasons in years, a 10-3 campaign.

In other recent incidents, Brian Kelly suspended wide receiver Michael Floyd from the football team for drunk driving, causing him to miss spring practices in 2011. In 2007, point guard Kyle McAlarney was charged with marijuana possession and suspended from the university for the spring semester. Both players, however, returned to Notre Dame to be impact players in their senior seasons and graduate from the university.

Looking further back into Notre Dame football history, there have been a few major incidents that sidelined key contributors.

Michael Stonebreaker was the standout defender and an All-American linebacker for the national champion Irish in 1988. After falling asleep at the wheel while driving drunk on a February night in 1989, Stonebreaker violated the suspension of his on-campus driving privileges and was suspended from Notre Dame for his entire season. Despite Stonebreaker’s talent and accomplishments, the defense gave up just 14.5 points per game, and the team finished 12-1 in 1989. Stonebreaker returned in 1990 and finished third in balloting for the Butkus Award, awarded annually to the nation’s best linebacker.

In 1974, an 18-year old South Bend woman accused six Notre Dame players of rape. No charges were filed in the case. The university, however, suspended the players for a year for having the woman in the dorm room after-hours, a violation of university rules. The suspended, all sophomores, included four projected starters and two important backups. Of the six, four ended up playing in the NFL. Their suspensions played a role in the Irish falling short of the national championship in Ara Parseghian’s final season, a 10-2 affair. Five of the six players eventually returned to play again for the Irish.

These scandals contain much more than meets the eye. With players answering to several different entities that have different policies about different misconduct, it would be nearly impossible to find one incident just like another. The effects — whether on the field or off — vary widely, as does the national attention received. The eyes of the nation are watching to see how this most recent incident will play out.