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All is Not Well in Buckeye Land


The six month saga of Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel came to a sudden end on Memorial Day with his written resignation as coach being submitted to his superiors and accepted.  This story began in December, 2010 when six football players, including star quarterback Terrell Pryor, were suspended for the first five games of the 2011 season for their involvement in receiving extra benefits for in effect selling Ohio State football memorabilia.

Critics immediately pounced on the fact that the players were not suspended for the Buckeyes’ upcoming Sugar Bowl game against the University of Arkansas–a game the team won after a last minute interception thwarted an Arkansas comeback attempt.

Shortly after the game the fire grew considerably hotter when it was announced that the school had discovered that Coach Tressel had known about the problem with the players in April, 2010, when a local attorney and former walk-on quarterback at Ohio State sent him an email alerting him to an ongoing federal investigation into drug activities involving the man the players dealt with in selling their memorabilia.  It eventually was reported that Tressel exchanged around ten emails with this attorney.  It was soon reported that Tressel also exchanged emails with an FBI agent who was the father of a former Ohio State player.

The NCAA soon opened an investigation and issued a notice to Ohio State that serious rule violations were being looked at.  The NCAA sent the university a letter in May stating, among other things, that a formal hearing will take place in August.  During all of this it was disclosed that Coach Tressel had in September, 2010 signed a standard compliance form affirming that he had no knowledge of any wrongdoing or potential rule violations on the part of any of his players.

Ohio State had initially suspended Coach Tressel for the first two games of the 2010 season and then, at his request, increased the suspension to the first five games.  The Columbus Dispatch had begun running a series of stories on the problems at Ohio State.  On the day before Memorial Day the paper reported that the school and state officials were investigating reports that over 30 players and their family members had obtained automobiles from the same Columbus car salesman over the past two years.  The paper reported that Terrell Pryor had been stopped and issued traffic tickets three times during this period and each time he was driving a different car registered to the car salesman.

The paper also quoted current and recent players as saying that over 25 players had actually sold memorabilia or received free tattoos, far more than the six initially disciplined.  As the revelations continued to come out the university could have been facing charges of lack of proper oversight of the athletic department or the dreaded lack of institutional control charge from the NCAA.

It is likely that Coach Tressel would have inevitably been forced to resign. Once again the real damage has come from a cover up of alleged wrongdoing.  The Coach has repeatedly stated that he acted as he did simply to protect his players.  He has insisted that he was concerned that if he reported what he had learned to his superiors that a federal investigation could have been compromised and that his players could even have been in danger (it should be noted that the person under investigation has been indicted on drug trafficking charges but no players have been tied to those activities).

What is the larger lesson here?  Many people will believe that Coach Tressel engaged in a cover up to keep key players eligible for the 2010 season when he felt his team could contend for the national championship.  Others will allege that once again the importance of winning (and keeping fans, donors and sponsors happy) overcame any ethical considerations.

Perhaps the real issue is larger than just Ohio State.  Of the current members of the Bowl Championship Series football group of Division I, only 2 schools have never been sanctioned by the NCAA Committee on Infractions.  In the past 20 years the only Southeastern Conference member school that has not had its football or men’s basketball teams sanctioned is Vanderbilt.  The real problem seems more and more to be the system itself.

As long as winning and bringing in money remain major goals in “big-time” college sports situations such as the one at Ohio State will continue to demand the attention of sport fans.  At some point the people who run college sports will have to decide whether they want to promote what amounts to pro sports teams or whether they want to operate within the value system and structure of higher education.

The ultimate irony is that it is the sporting public that will probably make this decision.  If fans ever demand change, and vote with their money, then change will likely come about.  Absent that, we can look forward to the next person to take the hot seat that Jim Tressel has just vacated.

To read the story from the local Columbus, Ohio newspaper, click here.

How ethical considerations impact sports is a core topic for anyone planning on a career in sports administration or management.  For more information on these topics go to the website of the United States Sports Academy, found  at http://www.ussa.edu.


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