Ohio State football scandal: Is coach or 'hypocritical' NCAA to blame?

The resignation of Ohio State coach Jim Tressel holds lessons for the university, college football programs elsewhere, and the NCAA, say sports analysts. But few expect rule-breaking to abate.

Terry Gilliam/AP/File
In this March 30 photo, Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel pauses before answering questions during a news conference in Columbus, Ohio. Ohio State announced Monday that Tressel has resigned as the NCAA investigates the Buckeyes for possible rules violations.

There is plenty of blame to go around in the unsavory tale of Ohio State football players who accepted unauthorized goodies and the fall of their storied head coach, Jim Tressel, who allegedly knew about his players' actions and lied about it. Aside from the principal players, there is the NCAA itself, with its ambiguous rules, and colleges and universities that appear to value winning over learning, image over substance, say sports ethicists, educators, and columnists.

All were buzzing after Tressel resigned his post Monday, but only a few expressed much hope that the resignation would actually do much to change college sports.

“As with any big-school scandal, there will be a clucking of tongues about how big-time college athletics needs to be cleaned up, but there would be a gnashing of teeth were that to really happen,” says Mike Huguenin, a college football analyst at Rivals.com, in an e-mail.

The story of Tressel's resignation begins in December when five Ohio State players – including star quarterback Terrelle Pryor – were found to have received cash and discounted tattoos from the owner of a local tattoo parlor, who was the subject of a federal drug-trafficking case. Almost three months earlier, Coach Tressel had signed an NCAA compliance form stating that he had no knowledge of any wrongdoing by his athletes. News reports subsequently established that Tressel did in fact know of the players' tattoo parlor perks before he signed the form, making his nondisclosure a violation of both NCAA rules and his contract.

Ohio State at first made light of the matter. When President Gordon Gee was asked in March whether he would fire Tressel, he replied with a laugh line: “I’m just hoping he won’t fire me.” But as pressure mounted on OSU to bear down on athlete rule-breaking and coaching staff tolerance of it, and as a drumbeat of press coverage continued, Tressel finally threw in the towel.

In the grand scheme of things, there have probably been coaches and players who did much worse, without penalty. And some sports ethicists are as likely to point the finger at the National Collegiate Athletic Association as at Tressel and the OSU players.

“There is so much hypocrisy and duplicity in the rules of the NCAA that determining a right path might be very challenging for anyone,” says Ellen Staurowsky, professor and graduate chair in the Department of Sport Management & Media at Ithaca College, in New York. “There is such a disconnect between what their rules say versus the practical realities of the system that it’s no wonder those rules are subverted on a regular basis.”

Her beef: “The NCAA pretends that revenue-producing athletes should not be paid, but it’s hypocritical when they already know they’ve set up a formal system of scholarships. If you read the [NCAA] principles as written, you find that they are not so opposed to payment as they are to payment they cannot control,” says Professor Staurowsky.

“This is a case where Americans and college sports fans should proceed with caution in terms of making judgments,” she adds. “Many of us have known for a while that the nature of this business is such that good people get caught trying to make very difficult decisions.”

Tressel had won big since becoming head coach at Ohio State in 2001, including eight BCS bowls in 10 years, a 106-22 overall record, and a national championship. Off the field, Tressel had an upright reputation. He had written a book on religious faith and high achievement.

“This is another case of the shark-like, business side of collegiate sports coming to outweigh the value and educational welfare that should be paramount in a university setting,” says Dave Czeniuk, director of operations at the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University. He notes OSU President Gee's initial attempt to wave off the case.

“It’s evidence of how much deference the football program is given by the university president. It’s ridiculous,” says Mr. Czeniuk. “It sends the wrong message that sports trumps everything at their university.” That has happened because of the amount of money football brings to the university and how important football is to alumni who make donations, he says.

"I don’t think Tressel is the only one to blame,” says Czeniuk. “University leadership needs to take serious stock and make sure that they are promoting the right things and values.”

Although some sports writers say Tressel’s resignation will have a ripple effect in the world of college football, Mr. Huguenin at Rivals.com disagrees.

“Frankly, I don’t think it will be long-lasting. College athletics has had an extraordinary number of allegations of rules-breaking in the past 18 months, and I think much of it is shrugged off as ‘Everybody does it.’ I think everybody does do it, but the magnitude is the difference. There seems to be little black and white in the NCAA rule book – at least how the NCAA interprets it – and I think a lot of coaches live in those gray areas.”

Several analysts say that, as in Watergate with Richard Nixon, the cover-up is what eventually nailed Tressel.

“The school is now in search of a permanent coach and an instructor for a new course called, 'Crisis Bungling,' ” wrote Chris Dufresne in Tuesday’s Los Angeles Times.

The university has bungled the affair because it is in the business of education more than public relations, says Adam Hanft, CEO of Hanft Projects, a marketing and branding firm. “Universities are not really set up to manage reputational disasters. They are cloistered places that don’t like to think of themselves [as being] in the harsh capitalist world,” he says.

The entire culture needs to accept responsibility, says Perry Zirkel, professor of education and law at Lehigh University, who has written extensively about the issue of college athletics and scholarships.

“In the present big-time business of college football and basketball, such behavior – even among those who exhibit a real emphasis on integrity – appears to be part of the ‘game,’ ” he says in an e-mail. “We need systemic changes but we do not have the commitment to make them due to the seductive benefits of the present arrangement.”

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