This whole Jim Tressel scandal has really opened up a can of worms in my own head. I tweeted about it a decent amount last night and woke up thinking about it this morning. My first thought about the whole story is why the hell am I spending so much time reading about and thinking about Jim Tressel when there are clearly much, much more important things to be reading about and thinking about?
I suppose I don’t really have a great answer to that question, except to say that, well, I just care – whether I “should” or not. And I always will care. From the moment I was born, college sports were an integral part of my life, and they have remained an integral part of my life to this day. So I am naturally curious about this story in myriad ways, both for how it will affect things on the field and, more importantly, what it says about college sports on the whole.
It is way to early to tell how Tresselgate will affect the college football season next year, but if I were to whittle down my complicated gut reaction to what this says about college sports as a whole into one sentence, it would be this: the gray area in big time college athletics has never been grayer, and it gets more shaded (shady?) by the year.
First, Bob Knight was interviewed and gave a pretty strong defense of Tressel. In a nutshell, Knight said (with the caveat that he did not know all the details*) that even God himself would not know every rule in the NCAA rule book and that “Jimmy Tressel” was the quintessential example of what a college coach should be. Hmm…okay.
* – Quick aside: Coach, you know I appreciate and respect you for all the great times in Assembly Hall in the ’70s, 80s, and early ’90s, but…surely you knew that you’d be asked about Jim Tressel this morning. Don’t you think it might have been a good idea to read up on the details before being offered up as an expert opinion? (What was it you always used to say about preparation?) Not that you’ll care, but your biased agenda was pretty obvious.
Next up was Chris Spielman, a certified Ohio State and college football legend. He was much more harsh in rebuking Tressel, stating that the coach was unequivocally wrong both in what he did and in how he handled it. Spielman said that Tressel should have volunteered to double his fine and add an extra game onto his suspension.
So Knight and Spielman had decidedly different judgments about Tressel’s conduct. What was most interesting to me, however, was that they both capped their statements by essentially giving Tressel the same ringing endorsement: they would want their son to play for him.
And this is one of many spots where the gray area becomes really, really, really gray.
Let me state that I do not think Jim Tressel is a bad man, per se. Without knowing him personally, my guess is that he’s generally a good man, maybe even a very good man. I am sure that if he were my father or my uncle or my coach, I would probably be strongly in his corner and he in mine. And I also think he’s a good football coach – actually, an excellent and damn near legendary football coach. Remember, when he took over in Columbus the Buckeyes were not the annual Big Ten powerhouse and Michigan vanquishers that they are now. But Tressel promised Buckeye fans that they’d be proud of their team the next time they faced Michigan, and he has not gone back on that promise yet.
I say this because it is important to note that in so many ways, Jim Tressel is the perfect man to be roaming sidelines for Ohio State, which is obviously why he is currently being retained despite the storm clouds of controversy. And to make sure we have everything in its proper perspective, the “crimes” he is being accused of committing are not actually “crimes” in the legal sense of the word (well, who knows…) but rather crimes against our general sense of ethics and honesty within the context of the somewhat arbitrary and obtuse world of NCAA rules, regulation, and enforcement.
The problem here is that the current environment of college athletics makes it damn near impossible for a guy like Tressel to do it all. His primary task, above all else, is to win football games – with at most one loss allowed per year, so long as it isn’t to Michigan. Tressel could graduate every player, recruit only the most upstanding citizens to suit up on Saturdays, and cross every t and dot every i by the letter of NCAA law, but these are mere luxuries. If Tressel were to start finishing second in the Big Ten to Michigan, he’d be run out of Columbus so fast it would make Gordon Gee’s bowtie spin. Think that’s hyperbole? Not at Ohio State it’s not.
And yet, Jim Tressel is the highest paid and most high profile employee of The Ohio State University. So should winning football games really be his #1 priority? Interestingly, here is the Ohio State University’s purpose and core values, taken directly from their statement of vision:
To advance the well-being of the people of Ohio and the global community through the creation and dissemination of knowledge.
- Pursue knowledge for its own sake.
- Ignite in our students a lifelong love of learning.
- Produce discoveries that make the world a better place.
- Celebrate and learn from our diversity.
- Open the world to our students.
Nowhere in there does it say “set an example for honest and integrity” or “pursue the moral high ground in all instances, even if success or achievement could be compromised.” While I’m sure Ohio State would state publicly that they want everyone associated with the university to act with honesty and integrity, it is clearly not their primary purpose. Ohio State is here to “advance the well-being of the people of Ohio and the global community through the creation and dissemination of knowledge.” So within this context, allow me to play devil’s advocate here for a second. If winning football games creates financial and exposure windfalls that improve Ohio State’s ability to “advance the well-being of the people of Ohio and the global community through the creation and dissemination of knowledge” then what is Ohio State really sacrificing by rationalizing the actions of Jim Tressel and allowing him to continue leading its most visible group of students and one of its most powerful recruiting tools? Isn’t it reasonable to argue that Ohio State would be undermining its own mission by getting rid of Tressel?
Do you see what I mean about gray area?
I am only a couple of chapters into the new book Scorecasting by Tobias Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim. The tagline of the book is “The hidden influences behind how sports are played and games are won.” One of their basic premises is that to explain why things happen the way they happen in sports, we have to look at the way individuals are incentivized. To illustrate, they cite the example of why football coaches do not go for it on 4th down despite clear statistical evidence that doing so will improve their overall chances of winning. The reason is that coaches are not second guessed for punting on 4th down the majority of the time, but they would be second guessed if they started going for it every 4th down. Just look at the heat Bill Belichck, a 3-time Super Bowl champion, took when he went for that infamous 4th and 2 against the Colts.
Why do I bring this up? Because I think the same basic premise lies right beneath the surface in college sports.
Coaches like Jim Tressel have to make tough risk/reward decisions every day. In specific regard to this current Tresssel story, he took the risk that by sweeping the emails under the rug the negative ramifications would never surface, he would not have to suspend his best players, and the team’s chances of winning would not be jeopardized. He then later took an additional risk by not disclosing what he knew and when. The result? Ohio State beat Michigan, won another Big Ten title, and beat an SEC team in a BSC bowl game using players who otherwise would have been ineligible based on the information Tressel had in April. Those are the facts.
Was Tressel wrong? Absolutely. He was wrong in many, many ways. He was also wrong yesterday in offering up a half-hearted and disingenuous explanation that only the most blinded Buckeye fan could accept as realistically true. But in the end, Tressel has delivered what fans wanted and what his university tasked him to do: win, and win big. From his perspective, and clearly from the perspective of the Ohio State president and Athletics Director, the most unfortunate part of this whole story is that Tressel got caught red handed.
Let me digress now for a moment. I am not writing all of this to defend Jim Tressel. He is and was wrong, and he needs to be punished. Personally, I think if Dez Bryant could be suspended for 10 games for lying to the NCAA about having lunch with Deion Sanders, then Jim Tressel should be suspended for at least that length of time for doing something far more egregious in the grand scheme of things. However, I do think we need to be quick not to just tar and feather Jim Tressel while missing out on the bigger picture here.
What we are seeing now at Ohio State is simply the latest, most obvious manifestation of just how broken major college athletics are. As I said above, do I think Jim Tressel is a good man? Yes. Do I think he’s a good coach? Yes. Are either of those two qualities what has made him a successful football coach? No. What has made Jim Tressel successful at Ohio State is the same thing that made him successful at Youngstown State and the same thing that makes other big time college football and basketball coach successful: his his ability to selectively apply ethics, integrity, and a commitment to the rulebook all while publicly attempting to stay on the moral high ground. What is becoming more and more apparent in big time college sports is that being able to walk this extremely tricky high-wire is a virtual necessity for success. Auburn somehow did it without punishment and are national champions because of it. Ohio State and Jim Tressel got caught, and now they’ll pay a price because the NCAA will, reluctantly I’m sure, have no choice.
Personally, I hate what college sports have become. I hate that I legitimately think it’s damn near impossible to win big consistently without breaking the rules or compromising your program’s integrity. And I’ve had to watch first hand as the university I love made a deal with a devil and got burned by it. Three years later, Indiana basketball and its fans continue to pay the price for hiring a known cheater and then watching him cheat and lie again. But you know what? We got exactly what we deserved.
Here is what I have learned from that experience: never again. I can honestly say, without even a shred of disingenuousness, that I would rather win three Big Ten games every year doing the things the “right” way and with integrity than root for a team that compromises on rules or ethics but competes for championships (are you listening Coach Crean?). I suppose I’m still foolish enough to believe that I can have my cake and eat it too – a program that does things the right way and wins consistently – which is why I’ve never lost my passion for college sports even if my respect for them erodes more and more with each passing year.
Ironically, a part of me feels a weird kind of sympathy for Jim Tressel. He has undoubtedly done many good things for a lot of people and has brought thousands upon thousands of Ohio State fans untold joy and incredible memories. Certainly there are coaches out there who have done less good and more bad than Jim Tressel, but who will never have to endure the public flogging Tressel is currently getting. The reality is that these black marks on Tressel’s record will never totally erase or overwhelm the good he’s done, nor should they. Jim Tressel didn’t write the rules of the game; he has just played the game a lot better and with much more cunning than the majority of his peers. With that has come some good and some bad. How much of each you see just depends on your perspective.
What we love about sports is that at the end of an exciting, entertaining matchup on the field of play, there is a winner and a loser. It’s black and white. The problem is that we are able to delude ourselves into thinking that the result was determined by the competition we watched, but the associated irony is that so much of what ultimately determines the black and white result of winning and losing is not black and white at all. It’s gray. Very gray. Today our view of it all just happens to be shaded with a hint of scarlet, but the problems run much, much, much deeper than just Jim Tressel and Ohio State.
I’ll say it again to ensure the point is made: the Sweater Vest and Ohio State deserve to be punished, and harshly; but, it would behoove us all to redirect some of our vitriol and indignation towards the institution of major college athletics itself, where rarely is anything more important than winning and money. In college sports, winning begets money which begets more winning which begets more money, and so on and so forth, and any obstacles to either be damned. Somehow, some way, don’t we need to at least try find a way to put the toothpaste back in the tube?
Look, I don’t have any great solutions for how to fix the problems that I think ail college sports, and I recognize that college athletics have been rife with cheating and lying for a long, long time; but what gets to me is that it at least used to feel like college sports had a soul. For me, that was part of what separated college sports from professional sports and made them special. Maybe I was just naive, and maybe I still am, but I’ve always believed that there was a higher purpose to college sports than pursuits like winning and money. Unfortunately, it’s really hard to see those higher purposes these days, and that’s sad.
I think that somehow, as we move forward, college sports have to decide what they are. Are they amateur athletic competitions with a higher purpose than the pursuit of winning and making money? Or are they no different than the professional leagues, where nothing trumps the bottom line? Right now, major college sports dwell in the gray area between the two – and so the rest of us are forced to do the same.
Update: After publishing this article, I came across an article by Bruce Feldman at ESPN that echoes many of these same sentiments and includes a pretty revealing interview with an unnamed college coach.
“My buddy Seth Wickersham, who has covered just about every sport for ESPN The Magazine but has an emphasis on the NFL, texted me Monday night after Yahoo! Sports went with its Jim Tressel story. He wrote: “Is it just me or is college football coming apart?”
My immediate response was that there have always been big scandals in the sport (the SMU Mustangs and the old SWC, the Miami Hurricanes pell grant scandal, Albert Means, etc.), but now with Twitter you can hear about almost everything, and rumor and innuendo often gets “reported” and digested as if it’s fact. Plus, there are more rules players and teams can get caught up in and there’s much more money involved.
But the more I thought about his point, I wondered if he was on to something.”
What are your thoughts? Use the comment section to give your opinion on Jim Tressel and Ohio State or major college sports in general. As always, my goal for this post is simply to start a conversation with my own thoughts and feelings as a jumping off point, and I encourage you to agree or disagree with candor.