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Chicago Sun-Times

Four Notre Dame football players, all likely starters — including a potential All-American in defensive back KeiVarae Russell — were dropped from the team Friday in the midst of an academic-fraud scandal.

We'll see where this leads, but it doesn't look too super for the Irish's football program or coach Brian Kelly. Last offseason, you'll recall, starting quarterback Everett Golson was suspended for academic impropriety. Golson is back this season, and he's starting again.

Prodigal sons will return. Kids learn. But Notre Dame doesn't need more of this devious behavior. It has been going on a long time, especially when the team starts winning.

Back in the Lou Holtz era, there were accusations that steroid use among Irish players was rampant, but Holtz denied it. Five players were caught in three years in official tests, but former Notre Dame lineman Steve Huffman, whose two older brothers starred as linemen at the school, told me in 1989 for a magazine article that ''almost half the lettermen at Notre Dame used steroids at some time.''

He got specific: ''I saw the boxes of 40 or 50 bottles in guys' rooms. Bottles of pills, bottles of injectables. . . . I've seen the bottles in their rooms, and I've seen needles in their trash cans. Everybody on the team knows.''

It didn't matter much because the Irish had just won the national championship under Holtz in the Fiesta Bowl in January 1989. What did Holtz get? Why, a campus statue, of course.

There were the two years of NCAA probation for the football program (2000-01), the gang-rape allegations in 2002 that resulted in the expulsion of three players and a former player (only one was charged with a crime and none served time in jail) and the alleged sexual assault at the hands of linebacker Prince Shembo that apparently drove student Lizzy Seeberg to commit suicide in 2010.

There have been other hushed-up assaults on women, including one, according to an article by Melinda Henneberger in the National Catholic Review, in which a female student was assaulted by a football player at an off-campus party in February 2011. That woman went to the hospital with a resident assistant after the attack but told Henneberger she didn't report the crime to school officials because she had seen the nasty way Seeberg had been treated.

Henneberger also noted the 1974 case of a woman who accused six football players of raping her. She was hospitalized and spent a month in psychiatric care, yet a Notre Dame administrator called her ''a queen of the slums with a mattress tied to her back.''

Oh, and two of those same players were accused of raping a student at St. Mary's College - Notre Dame's sister school - two years later. Nothing happened either time.

No, cheating on tests, having somebody write papers for you and messing with classroom integrity certainly aren't on par with rape. But such cheating makes you wonder about the supposed aura of sanctity that hovers over the Golden Dome gridiron. It hasn't been that long since student videographer Declan Sullivan was killed while filming team practice on a day so windy that any reasonable coach would have told him to come down from his teetering tower.

RELATED: Notre Dame's Fatal Scissor Lift Accident Shakes Collegiate Sports Video Community

And the Manti Te'o sob story about a dead, nonexistent girlfriend that almost won the linebacker the Heisman Trophy out of sheer sympathy in 2012 ranks right up there with the fraudulent stuff tarnishing what's left of the Irish image.

Notre Dame president the Rev. John I. Jenkins stated that, for now, ''no one has been judged responsible for academic dishonesty, and no one has been dismissed from the university.''

Kelly and his coaching staff have said, naturally, that they knew - and know - nothing about any players cheating. Of course not.

Kelly left Cincinnati for Notre Dame in December 2009 by announcing, under police guard at what was supposed to be the Bearcats' postseason dinner, that he wasn't even sticking around for the coming Sugar Bowl. The Irish had pulled a fast one, indeed.

But that isn't cheating. That's just doing, apparently, what you're good at.

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