The NCAA has denied Notre Dame's appeal of a decision to vacate 21 football victories because of academic misconduct, including all 12 wins from the school's 2012 national championship game run.
Notre Dame's president, the Rev. John Jenkins, criticized the decision in a letter to alumni, saying the penalty was unprecedented considering who was involved in the misconduct and that the school was being punished for rigorously enforcing its honor code.
"We are deeply disappointed by and strongly disagree with the denial of the University's appeal, announced today by the NCAA," Jenkins said in the letter.
"To impose a severe penalty for this retroactive ineligibility establishes a dangerous precedent and turns the seminal concept of academic autonomy on its head. At best, the NCAA's decision in this case creates a randomness of outcome based solely on how an institution chooses to define its honor code; at worst, it creates an incentive for colleges and universities to change their honor codes to avoid sanctions like that imposed here."
He called the ruling unfair, referencing the recent North Carolina case in which the NCAA did not punish the school after an investigation of athletes taking irregular courses.
Notre Dame agreed to accept certain NCAA findings and acknowledged cheating involving several football players and a student athletic trainer but appealed only the penalty that vacated victories.
The NCAA stripped Notre Dame of 21 victories, fined the school $5,000 and placed the school on one year's probation in November 2016 after finding academic misconduct orchestrated by the trainer.
Notre Dame was the national runner-up during the 2012 season, losing to Alabama in the BCS title game and finishing with a 12-1 mark. The Irish went 9-4 in 2013.
"Student-to-student cheating is not normally within the NCAA's jurisdiction, but the NCAA concluded that the student's role as a part-time assistant trainer made her a 'representative of the institution' and justified a vacation of team records penalty in this case," Jenkins said in the letter.
"There is no precedent in previous NCAA cases for the decision to add a discretionary penalty of vacation of team records in a case of student-to-student cheating involving a part-time student worker who had no role in academic advising."
The appeals committee said in its report that the committee on infractions did not abuse its discretion when it determined the student trainer was an institutional employee.
"When reviewing infractions cases, the Committee on Infractions uses the bylaws and interpretations contemporaneous to the conduct being reviewed," the appeals committee wrote. "Therefore, under the bylaws in place at the time of the violations, a student trainer would be considered an institutional employee."
In its report, the appeals committee confirmed that at the time of the violations, the athletic training student was considered a university employee under NCAA rules.
The NCAA said the trainer was employed by the athletic department from fall 2009 through the spring of 2013 and "partially or wholly completed numerous academic assignments for football student-athletes in numerous courses" from 2011 into 2013. It said she did substantial coursework for two players and gave impermissible help to six others in 18 courses over two academic years.
The NCAA said the woman "continued to provide impermissible academic benefits to football student-athletes for a full year after she graduated" and was in her first year of law school elsewhere.
In all, the NCAA said, three athletes wound up playing while ineligible during the 2012 and 2013 seasons.
In his letter, Jenkins said the players were retroactively declared ineligible after Notre Dame investigated the misconduct in 2014 and recalculated the students' grades. Jenkins said that had Notre Dame merely expelled the students instead of recalculating grades, had a statute of limitations for past offenses or chose not to punish the students, an NCAA penalty would not have been imposed.
The vacation of victories was a discretionary penalty. Notre Dame objected to the penalty, noting all previous NCAA academic misconduct cases that resulted in victories being vacated involved an administrator, coach or person who served in an academic role.
"This is more disturbing given that, in 2016, the member institutions of the NCAA amended the academic misconduct rules to make clear that students who serve in roles identical to the student in our case would not be considered institutional representatives," Jenkins wrote.
Jenkins didn't name the North Carolina case but referred to a "recent high profile academic misconduct case in which the NCAA Committee on Infractions chair explained that even though certain classes 'more likely than not' were used to keep athletes eligible with fraudulent credits, the legitimacy of those classes was beyond the jurisdiction of the NCAA's enforcement process precisely because that question must be left to the determination of the university in the exercise of its academic autonomy.
"The notion that a university's exercise of academic autonomy can under NCAA rules lead to exoneration -- or to a severe penalty -- without regard to the way it which it is used defies logic and any notion of fundamental fairness," Jenkins wrote.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.