Jim Tressel holds his former team's helmet
Is anybody embarrassed by the way Ohio State University handled the entire situation surrounding Jim Tressel and the glorified Buckeye football program? Seriously, is there any shame in the most supportive of Buckeye fans around the Midwest and across the nation? The defense to Tressel and the entire situation, from an early investigation revolving around a major marijuana trafficker and his idolized Buckeye memorabilia to what is now the next major NCAA violation case, is simply overwhelming and incoherent.
It's unfortunate to be stuck in the middle of Buckeye country when you're not a Buckeye fan. Even more overwhelming is listening to the response from one side compared to the other in discussing what has unfolded over the past seven months. From the start, the outcry in the Cincinnati area has been that of "protect Tressel" and "I question their loyalty to the program, not breaking NCAA rules."
Loyalty, that is of the once-prolific awards you received by beating your rival or winning the Big 10; something Terrelle Pryor and others took for granted. Not breaking NCAA rules, as in not selling your prized possessions to a tattoo parlor owner who just happened to dabble in a bit of drug trafficking; in this case, a major bit. Of all the things these kids could have received, cash is the big no-no here. Discounted tattoos are just another piece in this mysterious puzzle.
For one, I respect Tressel when it comes to loyalty to his team because when it's all said-and-done, this is the type of coach you want to play for—the one who will do everything to protect his players and coaches, even if doing so leads to the biggest scandal since that of Reggie Bush, OJ Mayo, and the University of Southern California athletic department. However, loyalty to your team comes with boundaries, and those boundaries are guarded by pricey suit-wearing businessman in the NCAA army, a corporation so involved in it's image that it has dug it's own grave in this matter.
Let's not forget: not only did they allow all five players to play in last year's Sugar Bowl, an extremely debatable move that was explained as a way to keep the integrity of the BCS bowl system in tact. Did you hear that? Integrity in the BCS Bowl System. The same system that is scrutinized year-in and year-out for topics ranging from it's pick-and-choose atmosphere to computer rankings that make as much sense as last month's energy bill. The NCAA has a knack for making decisions that essentially look backwards months later, yet they also have a knack for refocusing the spotlight on the athlete(s) or coach(es) involved when the general public starts to bicker.
Sadly, many Buckeye fans still defend the NCAA's decision to begin suspensions starting in the 2011 season. When asked how it's not similar to the Florida State cheating scandal a few years back, most responses fall right in line with the assertion that OSU players weren't receiving extra benefits; they were just selling items that were theirs to begin with. There's no extra benefit in receiving awards and then selling them for money and ink? Players were cheating in Tallahassee, but in Columbus they were just being kids.
In no way do I intend to defend what unravelled at FSU; however, I do see why a kid with a full course load and full-time practice schedule might take the extra benefit of receiving an easy A in an online music history class. Quite honestly, it sounds like that class was created to cut corners. Let's not forget that over 30 football players were suspended for that season's bowl game against Kentucky. Both violations were first reported—self reported by FSU—around the same time frame in their respective years, but we're preserving integrity in the BCS Bowl System, not the Music City Bowl. "Let the kids play", says the NCAA.
So the Buckeyes did, and they won, in a familiar "Tressel ball"-styled game that so many in the Midwest have become accustomed to. Now, this seven-month investigation has sprung so much light into what many suspected for years; OSU might not play on the safe side of the track. It's easy to believe with a demeanor such as that of Tressel that something is happening, but we'll never know about it. It's something that is very Bill Belichik-esque. How about CIA-like? Just enough answer to forget about it, yet not enough to actually get the whole story. Yet, Tressel's demeanor finally got the best of him. He lied to his bosses, who still back him to this day, and even worse, to the NCAA.
Unlike FSU, Tressel and his staff didn't willingly come forward to report violations. Let me repeat: I respect Tressel's loyalty to his players but not his decision-making. He lied to a group of such big egos and now they want him to pay. As of Memorial Day 2011, they got their wish. Furthermore, all those non-Buckeye fans who have cried "foul" since December are getting their wish too. The once almighty Buckeye program is in shambles with an interim coach set to pick up the pieces.
FSU had their entire season vacated; so did USC. Reggie Bush isn't even to be considered when talking about one of the best dynasties of this century. Bobby Bowden, who couldn't possibly have known that eight different FSU athletics programs were using this class as a get-by, had his legacy tarnished with 14 vacated victories over two seasons. Considering that the NCAA allowed those players to play in the Sugar Bowl, does OSU finish the 2010-11 season with a 1-0 record?
The integrity of the BCS Bowl System is on the line when a team can be left to qualify with a 0-0 record and come out victorious, even if those wins are vacated months later. For those who forget, those five players made a promise—to their coach, their team, and their fanbase, to return for the 2011 season, face their punishments and be allowed to play in the Sugar Bowl, or don't. All five made that promise, skipping the draft (not that their NFL stock was high to begin with), and coming back to face their punishment like men; not like the boys who had sold their belongings for money and tattoos.
However, as of Monday, Tressel had not fulfilled his promise. OSU football and its administration hasn't fulfilled its promise either. Yet the Buckeye faithful still defend their coach and program. Now, I do question the loyalty inside the sweater vest and in the upper office. Some of those kids, low stock or not, could have left and went on to assume NFL careers. Now they're stuck in school facing a five-game suspension with no knight in shining armor to lead them. They, along with the Buckeye faithful, essentially became pawns in the giant chess game of "how can we cover this up."
These kids, who did indeed use their status to receive extra benefits, are facing an uphill battle. Their names will be remembered for beginning the downward spiral of the Buckeye program, again. Need I mention Woody Hayes? Jim Tressel's legacy is forever tarnished and will continue to grow worse with the scrutiny of every off-the-field issue in the months to come. You also have a school president who half-jokingly hoped Tressel didn't fire him.
Then came Ray Small, a former Buckeye, who claimed so many players were doing the same thing, only to renege on his statement the following day. Not to mention the ongoing investigation into Pryor's automobile arrangements and the connection between one popular used-car dealer and the Ohio State football program. Now reports of up to 28 Buckeye's selling their memorabilia are emerging across the airwaves. It's becoming obvious that Small was being truthful but realized the seriousness of his actions, and so turned his back on his comments.
I'm sure the names Maurice Clarett and Troy Smith will be mentioned a few times in the near future. However, if Buckeye fans don't hear those names, don't forget them, because they should be just another block of foundation that built this giant mess. They were early warning signs that maybe Tressel and the Buckeye program were more concerned with winning than integrity. There is no integrity in selling your personal awards. There is no integrity in lying to your bosses, even if they continue to defend the high-profile coach. Last but certainly not least, there is no integrity in lying to the NCAA, especially when they have the integrity of the BCS to uphold.
This is the year of NCAA violations and OSU certainly wasn't singled-out. They were just stuck in the middle of the cleaning-up stage and nobody wants to take the blame. Best of luck to Jim Tressel and his future in coaching because at the end of the day, a man's livelihood is at stake. Best of luck to the Ohio State Buckeyes in cleaning up such an awful mess. Best of luck to the NCAA in cleaning out the dirty in college sports, and best of luck to those five players who traded their accomplishments for cash and tattoos and were caught. It certainly couldn't have been worth it.