When former Ohio State wide receiver Ray Small told the OSU student newspaper The Lantern that he and former teammates received free and discount goods from local retailers, the aftermath was predictable.
Most of the sports world would condemn the Ohio State athletic programs and call for the firing of head football coach Jim Tressel, swearing that their program wins the honest way and would never do such a thing. The state of Ohio would stand by its football program, sticking up for the players who received special treatment and dismissing the allegations.
As for Small, he would never again be viewed as a former Buckeye, but instead would be shunned as a traitor.
In just the short amount of time since The Lantern's story broke, that chain of events has held true. As people are left to judge the story for themselves, Buckeye Nation is at war with the rest of the sports world.
This is just the latest instance of a fanbase jumping to defend its team following a controversy. There was Iowa's rhabdomyolysis outbreak in January that left 13 players hospitalized, Auburn's "pay for play" scandal during the fall, North Carolina's extra-benefits scandal in September and the USC-Reggie Bush saga that climaxed over the summer.
In every instance, one fanbase was left on its own to fight against the rest of the college football world—and every one of those "conflicts" still resonates today.
Regardless of whether Ohio State did something wrong—or whether any of those programs were wrong, for that matter—the Buckeye Tattoo-gate/championship ring story raises an interesting point about the perhaps blind devotion of sports fans.
College football fans are some of the most passionate fans on Earth, which is what makes the game the greatest sport on Earth. However, that passion can turn to delusion if fans aren't careful.
Sports fans share a bond with their teams similar to the bonds that tie together families. Just like a parent will trust their child to do the right thing no matter how much is stacked against them, fans will trust that their teams' coaches and players are always truthful and fair, regardless of whether the evidence points to the contrary.
That passion is admirable, but also a flaw.
College athletes and coaches who break the rules have become masters of coming up with excuses to tell the NCAA and getting away with their violations without punishment. These days, just saying, "My dad did it" or "I didn't know that was against the rules" can totally acquit someone of any wrongdoing.
The NCAA is afraid to make definitive statements of wrongdoing, so no matter how obvious it might be that the Ohio State players knew it was against the rules to sell their championship rings, the NCAA does nothing.
But what's astounding is how many "homer" fans will buy the excuses as well. They don't place the blame on the players and coaches who were in the wrong, but instead blame the media and other fanbases who criticize them. Even when the NCAA finds enough evidence to punish a program, some fans still aren't convinced.
According to The Lantern, former Ohio State basketball player Mark Titus wrote on his blog, "Any OSU student in the past five years could tell you that a lot of the football players drive nice cars. You'd have to be blind to not notice it."
The article states that he has received "all sorts of hate mail. ... If people are this upset with me for pointing out the obvious, I can't imagine how mad they must be at all the guys who actually broke the rules and got OSU into this mess in the first place."
Titus's statement summarizes the incredible irony of the OSU situation. The fans don't want to hear the bad parts of their program—and trust me, there is a bad side to every Division I athletic program. They only want wins and glory. When someone, even a former player, jeopardizes those things, they back their program even more.
Few college sports fans will tell you that they want their program to win at all costs. However, if they truly want their program to be a model of excellence on and off the field, they can't be blind to any and all wrongdoing.
I wrote an article in late January following Iowa's rhabdomyolysis scandal about the media's rush to judgment of Iowa's situation. Some writers were calling for Kirk Ferentz's firing before anyone, including the Iowa program, knew all of the facts.
While it's wrong to rush to criticize a program without facts, it's wrong to support that program as well. If it turns out the program is in the clear, fans can be quick to show their support. However, if the program did break the rules, it shouldn't receive fan support.
This isn't a call for the end of passion in college football fans, nor is it a call for all Ohio State fans to abandon their team—if that were the case, then every program would lose its fanbase at some time or another.
However, this is a call for fans to hold their favorite programs accountable for their actions, even if that means losing their star player.
If fans really want their team to play by the rules, they need to hold that team to the same ethical standards that they hold the rest of college football to. If they don't, then they are just fostering an environment that allows the violations to continue.
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