I’ve started writing this post almost daily since the press conference last week when Ohio State announced Jim Tressel had committed an NCAA major infraction by failing to report that a couple of his players might have sold memorabilia to a tattoo shop owner.
I’ve started and stopped so many times because I was waiting to see if my feelings from Monday, when Yahoo’s report surfaced, and Tuesday, when Ohio State botched the news conference announcing the violation, had tempered at all.
They haven’t. I’m angry.
I was angry before, when the university’s AD and its head football coach said they hadn’t done a good enough job educating the players about NCAA rules; the direct result was the players selling rings, jerseys, shoes and trophies to tattoo guy and receiving five-game suspensions as a result.
But that was nothing compared to Tressel’s inaction after he received tips that his players were selling the stuff. He knew in April; he didn’t say anything until after the Sugar Bowl, even though his contract says specifically that he must report possible violations.
In failing to do so, he committed a pretty serious one himself: NCAA Bylaw 10.1, unethical conduct. Classified as a major violation.
Ohio State spends a lot of time talking with the NCAA. In the last decade its athletics department has self-reported more secondary violations than any other program in the country. Supporters say that’s the sign of an honest program; cynics call it sanctioned cheating.
I’m not sure what I would call it.
But the football program has steered clear of serious problems, ones that are a direct result of misconduct on the part of the people who run the team. Until this week, I’ve been able to look a doubter in the eye and say that after Maurice Clarett, Troy Smith and even the tattoo thing that the NCAA has looked — and looked hard — and come up with nothing to tarnish the program.
Thanks to the inaction — or was it the action? — of the head coach, I can’t say that any longer.
Tressel said on Tuesday night he didn’t do anything about those emails because he was afraid of disrupting a federal drug investigation. Was he also afraid of jeopardizing what he had to know was a certain Top-5 preseason ranking? Was he also concerned about the possibility of losing the big September non-conference game for the third year in a row?
I wish I could say I didn’t have those doubts. But now I do.
I would be feeling a little better now if the news conference Tuesday had been handled differently. The last time an Ohio State coach was involved with a major violation, Ohio State fired head basketball coach Jim O’Brien so quickly that it got into trouble for breaching O’Brien’s contract.
Tressel could have been fired for this; termination is one possible outcome for committing a major violation, according to his contract. But both AD Gene Smith and President Gordon Gee not only made it clear that firing Tressel wasn’t an option, but they seemed to fall all over themselves to downplay the actions of the guy who got them in trouble. I love President Gee, but that news conference is not the right time to joke about the football coach firing the head of the university.
But as off-putting as that was, there was one thing that was worse. Tressel said he had to do better. He said he was aware that he had let some people down.
He never said he was sorry.
Coach, I’m one of the people you’ve let down. In the last decade I have been proud of my football team, both in terms of its performance on the field and with a few exceptions off it as well. Every time I hear a hater talk about Cheaty McSweatervest, I step up and defend what you’ve accomplished. I have been able to hold my head high, because my team has avoided the clouds that follow so many other college football programs.
And I can’t do that any longer.
I’ll still be there next fall, making the drive from Pittsburgh to Columbus for every home game. I’ll be in the stadium for the two games you have to miss. I’ll be there if the NCAA adds games to your suspension, or if it puts the program on probation. I’ll be there through the games that the starting quarterback, running back, wide receiver and left tackle have to miss because they didn’t know the rules.
I’m still going to be a fan, coach, even though it’s going to feel a little different. Until this week, I thought, perhaps naively, I believed I was cheering for something special. Now it’s going to feel like I’m cheering for just another college football program.