Ohio State, the Jim Tressel Case and Moral Ambiguity

Ryan Vooris@ryanvoorisContributor IIIJune 11, 2011

It's been more than two weeks since Jim Tressel resigned. At the moment his legacy is mixed, but in the end, whose isn't?
It's been more than two weeks since Jim Tressel resigned. At the moment his legacy is mixed, but in the end, whose isn't?

We are not all good. We are not all bad. A human being is a mixed bag of the decisions and paths they take in life. Jim Tressel exemplifies this. He has many qualities that appear to make him a good person. He has many qualities that appear to make him a bad person.

After one BCS National Championship and nine BCS Bowl Games, Ohio State University Head Football Coach Jim Tressel resigned on May 30th amidst allegations he lied to the NCAA.

It's now been a few weeks since much was written and said about the situation. Perhaps with a little perspective we can examine the case with less passion and more objectively.

Human beings don’t like complexity in other human beings. It makes things too difficult to understand. We want our villains and we want our heroes. In the world of sports, where emotions and rivalry runs high, this is even more true. When it comes to Jim Tressel, the evidence shows a complex man inclined to both integrity and to ignoring blatant rule breaking. We should not be too quick to exclusively apply the label of a person wronged, a scapegoat or an all-out cheater.

According to the much discussed SI article, Tressel  knew about a car and money received by star quarterback Ray Isaac while Tressel was head coach at Youngstown State. Today Isaac runs a coaching business in North Carolina and still calls Tressel a “surrogate dad.” He credits Tressel with teaching him important life lessons like never taking the path of least resistance.

Here we have two potentially contrary behaviors by Tressel. The first is willful ignorance of NCAA law breaking.  The other is of a nurturing parent, teaching life lessons.  Can both approaches exist within one mind? Cognitive dissonance certainly makes it possible. We could argue the duality of man makes it possible.

The SI article goes on to say that Tressel helped Isaac get out of traffic tickets if Isaac read a book and then wrote about its redeeming qualities.  Was Tressel helping out a kid in need, even if it meant a little rule breaking or was he trying to rationalize his rule breaking in his desire to help his star quarterback? The truth probably lies in how you perceive the human psyche (and whether or not you are a fan of Ohio State).

 At Ohio State, the problems continued for Tressel.  When his players traded their possession for tattoos, Tressel sat on the information when he learned about it.  Instead he contacted the mentor of one of the players involved Terrell Pryor.  Was Tressel covering up for his players because he wanted to keep them eligible and keep his teams winning or was he trying to handle the matter in house by dealing with it personally? Was he protecting his players or his own skin? Maybe we shouldn’t be looking at this in such absolute terms of right and wrong.

What are we really talking about here? We are talking about college kids, who because of the demands of school and athletics, have no income, choosing to trade their possessions for services. This is a exchange of goods or bartering as everyone who sat through day one of microeconomics knows. This basic economic transaction is a violation of NCAA bylaws.  I’m not sure why.  Doesn’t the NCAA allow its athletes to exchange their services for money from an employer if they hold a job? Aren’t the awards their possessions?  Who is the NCAA to say what they can and cannot do with them?

This is the situation Tressel choose to lie about and cover-up.  It is certainly no Watergate. 

Jason Whitlock, playing his unofficial role as the Devil’s Advocate of the sporting world, goes after the NCAA (this is no surprise to those who read him regularly).  He defends Tressel using the mantra that what he and he players did wasn’t that awful and that the NCAA is the real problem.  Whitlock asks the salient question of why we are demonizing people like Tressel, rather than the NCAA.  He goes onto quote former NCAA executive director Walter Byers comparing the NCAA system to a plantation one.

“The rules are worse than the people,” Whitlock concludes.

My conclusion towards this sordid mess, is to agree with Mr. Whitlock (something I am often loathe to do). We are operating under false assumptions.  Article after article after article expresses righteous indignation at Tressel’s actions and those of the Ohio State administration. Writers pile on invective filled adjectives and take gleeful aim at Tressel’s reputation. Where are the articles questioning the system in which Tressel and OSU operate? There needs to be an in-depth five month investigation of an organization that makes it a crime to trade personal property for goods or services. Why are schools willing to bow to media pressure for change but not the NCAA, an organization made up of those same schools?

Why is there such indignation over a rule violation, which is only a rule violation at the end of the day?  It is not the use of PEDs, or gambling or law breaking. It is difficult to find a real world comparison to this situation.

Jim Tressel is a complex human being.  His mind appears to hold contrasting thoughts likely made possible by a strong inclination towards cognitive dissonance.  But since his acts of cheating don’t fail any legal standard and the morality of them is left to the netherworld of personal perception, we should step back and examine how our minds can hold such passionate indignation over these acts