Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Problem is Ohio State, Not Just Tressel

Last Friday, July 22, the NCAA apparently bought Ohio State's weak defense that former coach Jim Tressel was solely responsible for the incident that cost him his career. They thus concluded that this case does not warrant either "failure to monitor" or "lack of institutional control," two charges that are considered the worst to receive for a college football program.

This is surprising to anyone who has followed the Jim Tressel scandal, where he lied deliberately and directly to the NCAA when he signed a compliance form saying that he didn't know five of his football players had committed violations while an email conversation with Chris Cicero later showed that he clearly did. When news broke of Tressel's knowledge, Ohio State Athletic Director Gene Smith initially and firmly stated that Jim Tressel would not be fired because "this case, in [Gene Smith's] view, does not warrant it." Media outcry and pressure from the scandal showed that perhaps it did, and Tressel was forced to resign. (His resignation was later changed to retirement.)

Anyone who is a fan of integrity was furious by Gene Smith's initial response ("at the end of the day Jim Tressel is football our coach"), and now Ohio State's actions, because it shows their interest lies not in following the rules—as the NCAA should recognize—but in protecting their assets, their ability to win, and their ability to beat Michigan. They threw Tressel under the bus while at the same time waiving his initial fine of $250,000 and paying him the rest of his salary as a retirement benefit. It's the sort of hypocrisy that one would think the NCAA, as college football's self-proclaimed watchdog, would loathe. Instead, the NCAA bought it.

Buckeye fans will say that my hatred of Ohio State in this case comes solely from my bias as a Michigan fan. While to some degree this is true, I didn't always hate Ohio State with the fervor that I do today. In fact, for many years I respected Ohio State and thought they had a solid program. I found it really hard to speak ill about a team when the coach, Jim Tressel, beat Michigan with such humility and respect. 

There were Michigan fans I talked to who spoke about a grand conspiracy perpetrated by Tressel, Gene Smith, Gordon Gee, boosters, and Ohio State fans everywhere, where they did whatever it took to beat Michigan because they were obsessed with it, because nothing else mattered—not rules, not honor, nothing. The rumors were that Tressel and Ohio State regularly looked the other way when their players committed infractions, and anytime Tressel said he had no idea what was going on, that was a lie. The man was secretly scum, and his choirboy senator demeanor was just a front to make everyone believe otherwise.

Of course, I didn't care much for conspiracy theories, and that's exactly what I thought my friends were spewing—confusing and overly complex conspiracy theories because Ohio State was your rival and that's what you do. Or maybe it was because Tressel kept beating Michigan and they just couldn't deal with it, and this was their way of rationalizing the losses. So, for a while, I didn't pay much attention to what those Michigan fans were saying; it was just senseless drivel. Then, when it came out that Tressel had not only known about his players selling memorabilia for cash/tattoos but also lied about it, everything changed. If Tressel was really an upstanding guy, why would he so obviously cover something up? Wouldn't the honorable thing be to punish those young men because bad decisions have consequences?

It finally became clear to me that Tressel didn't really care about honor or integrity. The reason: he had pushed so hard for the NCAA to allow those players to participate in the Sugar Bowl. Originally it was seen as something admirable because Tressel said he wanted those players to get their degrees, but it was actually an action that was just self-serving: he wanted those players to play in the Sugar Bowl so he could win, and he wanted them back so that he could have another successful year, another opportunity to beat Michigan. He knew they were ineligible, so that's why he did it. It was sick. The man really was scum. I knew right when I saw Tressel admit it and Gene Smith respond that he would not be fired and Gordon Gee just laugh it off. That was it. That was the moment all the conspiracy theories, everything my friends had said and I didn't believe, became real. I felt somewhat betrayed, because I had defended Tressel to these people, and they had been right all along.

And what was worse: Ohio State fans didn't care. They would have preferred if nothing had ever been discovered. To them, it wasn't tragic that the crime was committed in the first place; rather, it was tragic that Tressel had gotten caught. John Cooper ran a tight ship at Ohio State, but nobody cares that he had winning seasons or never brought NCAA sanctions against the Buckeyes, because he didn't beat Michigan. Tressel beat Michigan, so Tressel's okay. It didn't matter that he lied. It didn't matter that he played ineligible players. It didn't matter that he broke rules and broke them deliberately. He did it to beat Michigan, and that means he did it for Ohio State, and so ultimately he did the right thing. That's how they see it.

The NCAA has made a grievous error in taking the bait that Ohio State has given them, which only adds the college football world's cynicism that the system is broken. Sure, Ohio State fans are exhaling a huge sigh of relief because the NCAA won't hit them with the two most feared charges, because it means that the punishments might not be all that severe. But to the rest of us, not just Michigan fans, but anyone who's separate from Ohio State, it's like we're watching Al Capone get away with murder. We all know what's going on there. The evidence is clear if you open your eyes and see it.

The slap on the wrist that Ohio State's administration gave Tressel is enough to show that they didn't want to see him go. Their slow "investigation" that reveals nothing more than what has already been proven is enough to show that they aren't really complying with the NCAA. Changing Tressel's resignation to retirement is enough to show that the punishment he got is really not a punishment at all: he gets to go out on a good note—or, at least, that's how Ohio State's history books will show it. Vacating wins is necessary but not sufficient: it does nothing to deter future violations. Bowl bans and scholarship reductions do. Those are real, palpable negative effects on the program to heavily and steadily remind them they did something wrong, they lied about it, and now they're going to pay. (This was the NCAA's rationale with USC.)

Ohio State maintains that it is Tressel's fault alone and the university did everything it could to oust him, thus they claim that "fail to monitor" and "lack of institutional control" are not warranted. This is an obvious lie. Had Smith and Gee immediately fired Tressel, then it would be an easier point to argue. Yet because they didn't, because they thought that this wasn't a big deal, because it wasn't a major violation in their eyes, because their punishments were so lax in the beginning, they did not show true, swift compliance with the NCAA as they claim. Their response was slow and drawn out, like a chess match, waiting to see what the NCAA says. This makes them out to look like good strategists but really bad liars.

It is their attitude that makes Gee and Smith responsible, their attitude that "We have no intention of firing the almighty Tressel and let's just hope he doesn't fire us because we're not the ones beating Michigan at the end of the day." This is what leads me and so many others to believe that somehow Smith and Gee knew about the violations as well. There's just no paper trail to prove it, like there was with Tressel. So it's like it didn't happen.

My point is this: the problem is Ohio State, not just Jim Tressel. Tressel was not one man acting alone. Given the reasons why he did it, he could not have been. Tressel is the product of an environment that promotes winning at all costs, putting the talented players on the field even when they're ineligible because that's what wins games. Tressel is just a cog in the machine, surrounded by people who routinely look the other way and excuse bad behavior because that's what it takes to beat Michigan seven times in a row. Tressel wanted Pryor. Pryor wanted cars, praise, and adulation, so Tressel fed him a line that was confirmed by Eleven Warriors: "The two most important people in the state of Ohio are the governor and the quarterback for Ohio State. And the quarterback for Ohio State is number one." To Ohio State fans, that's pretty cool, because there's some truth to it. To the rest of us, it's sick and kind of demented. Are you so obsessed with one team that the quarterback, a college kid, is the most revered person in the state?

Tressel had to have known what he was getting when he recruited Pryor, but it wasn't a problem, because Ohio State, its fan base, and its shameless boosters would give him everything he wanted. As long as he produced on the field, nothing else mattered. Ohio State is the worst case of corruption in the history of college football. Until the NCAA realizes that, nothing's going to change. If the NCAA really wants Ohio State and other teams like them to follow the rules and follow them ethically, they must show that they mean business.

In a previous article, I cited a section of George Dohrmann's Sports Illustrated article that described an incident where Tressel, as an OSU assistant back in the 1980s, rigged a raffle at the Ohio State football camp. Dohrmann writes that most kids who attended the camp would never play a college football game, but they had probably saved up money from mowing lawns just to play once in Ohio Stadium and maybe, just maybe buy enough tickets for the raffle to win cleats and a Buckeye jersey. Instead, Tressel made sure that the elite prospects won the raffle.

While most people would see this as a despicable act by Tressel, and it certainly is, one must approach it from his perspective and see what he was attempting to achieve. It's unlikely that Tressel was a cackling villain who wanted to see hapless kids who'd never play lose the raffle. No, what Tressel wanted was to rig the raffle so that, if the elite prospects won the prizes, they'd have a memorable experience at the camp and maybe that would be enough to make them want to play for Ohio State. Rigging the raffle meant that poor kids would lose, yes, but it also meant that highly-touted recruits might commit to Ohio State because of it. Did it work? It's possible that sometimes it did. But what about those other times, the times when the elite prospect would win the cleats and the jersey and still wouldn't commit to Ohio State? That's when it's the most despicable.

The last two paragraphs are not meant to simply rehash why Tressel is a horrible person, they are meant to illustrate the overall point of why he was hired. While his rigging of the raffles may not have worked in all cases, it must have worked in some, which meant that Tressel successfully recruited great players, albeit through unethical means. Tressel fit in too well at Ohio State. Because he did whatever it took to win in Columbus, and because most of the time he won, Tressel was allowed to function. That's the point. That's why the problem is Ohio State and not just him. In Columbus there is a culture that surrounds the program of vile and unethical conduct that has been bred and fostered ever since Woody Hayes had his "Frontliners" booster club, who Dohrmann writes scouted and courted recruits, and they didn't do so ethically.

The most infuriating thing about Ohio State, and why I've come to hate them so much, is that it doesn't even occur to them to do things with integrity, the right way, the ethical way. They claim that Ohio State football is about a Sacred Brotherhood, but really it's just about winning. It's like they're saying, "What's the point of being ethical when you don't win? If you win ethically, great. If you don't—well, at least you won. Let's not speak out how we won; let's just enjoy it."

When it comes to violations that Tressel and Ohio State have committed, there are generally two modes of thought. The first is that he looked the other way accidentally. This is what Tressel himself claims. The assertion is that, in any other situation, Tressel would have realized that this was wrong and would have reported it. His mistake was that he simply didn't. Something didn't register in his mind. It was largely an accident, a brain fart, and he's still a good person. The second mode of the thought is that he looked the other way deliberately. This is my belief and what I extend to all of Ohio State. It doesn't matter the situation, Tressel and anyone else at Ohio State looked the other way because they thought they could get away with it. Why? Two reasons. One, reporting it is not to their benefit. If the players involved are crucial components to the game, then exposing them runs the risk of punishment, and it's better to seek forgiveness later. Two, no one can do anything if they don't find out. Let them prove that we've done something wrong, and then we'll admit it.

Normally, I tend to give someone the benefit of the doubt, and if this was just a one time thing, I would be in the boat with other people (mostly Buckeyes) who argue that Tressel overall is a good guy and he made one mistake once and we're all human. However, it is Tressel's track record and the fact that his credibility has been destroyed that puts me in the second mode of thought. There are too many coincidences that point to corruption at Ohio State. Maurice Clarett, Troy Smith, everything; this has been going on for years. The problem is not that one coach went rogue. The problem is that the culture in Columbus encouraged and practically demanded that he do whatever it takes to win.

I don't see that culture changing anytime soon. Probation notwithstanding, the Buckeyes will continue to do things unethically. I used to think that this was one big wake up call for Ohio State to get their act together, so that we can respect them as a rival. Now it's just another blip in their file. 

Mark my words, Ohio State will commit violations again, and they will get caught. Until the NCAA forces them to follow the rules, they'll have no reason to do so.

And with that, we all grow a little more cynical.

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