On Dec. 7, 2010, the Ohio State University Legal Affairs Department received information that members of the Ohio State football program potentially violated NCAA rules by exchanging Ohio State memorabilia for tattoos at the Fine Line tattoo parlor on the West Side of Columbus.
On Dec. 19, 2010, the university self-reported the violations to the NCAA, who then suspended the five players involved (Terrelle Pryor, DeVier Posey, Daniel Herron, Mike Adams and Solomon Thomas) for the first five games of the 2011 season.
Soon after the suspensions were handed down, Ohio State officials learned that head coach Jim Tressel knew about the players' improper conduct in April 2010, but failed to report it to the university. The NCAA is now considering appropriate sanctions for Ohio State for the "memorabilia-for-tattoos" infractions and Tressel's unethical cover-up.
With the NCAA having yet to issue sanctions against the Buckeyes, Ohio State now sits in the principal's office awaiting punishment. So there they sit already scarred from their self-inflicted wounds, including voluntarily vacating the wins of the 2010 season, the 2011 Allstate Sugar Bowl win (the first victory over an SEC team in a bowl game) and placing itself on a two-year probationary period.
But is it enough to demonstrate a renewed commitment to the NCAA rules and, in turn, stave off the NCAA sanction hammer that looms over the campus?
Probable Sanctions for the Buckeyes
Most college football fans are familiar with the 1987 Southern Methodist University "death penalty" case where the NCAA dealt the fatal blow of canceling SMU's 1987 season. Similar to the Ohio State players, a booster was providing SMU players with improper benefits. After receiving the NCAA sanctions, SMU strung together 20 losing seasons, went through four head coaches and bounced around two conferences.
In 1989, the University of Kentucky came this close to being dealt the same lethal blow as SMU.
Like Ohio State, the coaches at Kentucky failed to monitor players who were receiving transportation, housing and other benefits from a booster, and allowed those ineligible players to compete in games.The coaching staff (along with the athletic director at Kentucky) resigned, and the university distanced itself from the unethical booster. Kentucky managed to avoid the infamous "death penalty" because the university, "undertook an extensive internal investigation," according to the NCAA Infractions Report.
Violations of the NCAA rules are categorized as either secondary or major. The infractions committed by Tressel and the "Five Fine-Liners" are considered by the NCAA to be major violations.
Worse yet, Ohio State is considered a repeat violator since the NCAA issued infractions against the Buckeye basketball program in March of 2006. Ohio State, donning the mark of "repeat violator," is now subject to the cancellation of the 2012 football season.
Does the Buck Stop with Tressel?
According to the NCAA Notice of Allegations, Tressel was the only member of the Buckeyes' football program who was aware of the NCAA infractions. In its response to the NCAA Notice of Allegations, Ohio State highlighted the fact that they, "sought and accepted the resignation of Tressel."
In Ohio State's eyes, perhaps they have rid the institution of the evil-doer; let's move on.
Not so fast.
What about the fact that the NCAA allowed Pryor and the others to compete in the 2011 Allstate Sugar Bowl against Arkansas despite knowing of the infractions?
Pryor, et al. played in the Sugar Bowl with the NCAA's grace because, "the student-athletes did not receive adequate rules education," according to the NCAA News Release.
If that's the NCAA's position, then it would seem that the football program as a whole is at fault, not just Tressel.
After all, at the time of the infractions, Ohio State had six full-time employees in its compliance office. In fact, in its response to the NCAA allegations, the university bragged that it, "has an exemplary compliance program."
Boy, did they let this one slip through the cracks.
To Ohio State's credit, they have taken significant corrective action, including not allowing players to purchase Ohio State apparel or receive awards (including the coveted "Gold Pants") until after the student-athlete's eligibility is complete, adding staff to the compliance program and working with local businesses to ensure they do not provide athletes with any preferential treatment.
With the university taking the reins on a previously unbridled situation, history teaches us that none of the regular-season games will be canceled.
Buckeye Nation should brace itself, however, for a possible ban on a postseason game(s) and/or a reduction in scholarships.
Then again, given the NCAA's unpredictable sanctions in the past, one never knows.
If the NCAA solely focuses on the conduct of the five players, whose violations are considered secondary, then no further sanctions are likely; Ohio State's self-paddling satisfies the principal.
More plausible, however, is that the NCAA will consider not only the players' misgivings, but also the lack of oversight by the football program as a whole—along with Tressel's self-admitted unethical behavior—and punish the Buckeyes accordingly. If that's the case, then a bowl game is unlikely and the Michigan game cements itself as what it already is to many: the most important game of the year.
Whatever the outcome, the people of Columbus and Buckeye Nation as a whole are devout fans in every sense of the word—ask Kirk Herbstreit. Ohio State will retain a strong football program and should only get better after these tumultuous times, both on and off the field.