Sheriffs, Saloon Keepers and Sports Scandals

March 11, 2011

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On Tuesday night, Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith flew back from New York, where he had been running the NCAA basketball selection committee, to conduct a press conference.  He announced he was suspending his head football coach, Jim Tressel, for the first two games of the 2011 season.  This has Michigan Radio sports commentator wondering why – and why it’s not more.  

It looks like Jim Tressel has gotten himself into a bit of hot water.  That’s why his boss, athletic director Gene Smith, flew back to make sure everybody said they were “taking responsibility” – a phrase which changed some time in the last decade, and now means the exact opposite.   

It was fine theater.    

In December, a few weeks before Ohio State’s Sugar Bowl game, five Ohio State players were forced to admit they sold some jerseys, mementos and trophies to a tattoo parlor owner.  (And if you can’t trust a tattoo parlor owner with your ill-gotten goods, who can you trust?)   Well, he naturally put them on e-Bay, and there’s your scandal.  It all seems pretty petty to most people, but it’s serious business to the NCAA. 

In fairness to the NCAA, the players knew the rules – despite initially denying they did -- and brazenly decided to do it anyway.  They got caught, and they will have to pay the price.  Or they might… eventually.  You can’t be certain.    

That’s because they were not caught by the FBI or the IRS or whatever agency hunts down the scofflaws who tear off mattress tags.   They were caught by the NCAA – and that changes everything.   

The NCAA started in 1905, after 18 college students died playing football that year.  President Theodore Roosevelt wanted to save college football, so he called the presidents of Harvard, Yale and Princeton to the White House to figure out how.  And that’s when the NCAA was born.   

For decades, the NCAA’s main source of money was members’ dues, which it used to enforce the rules.  Simple enough.  But about thirty years ago the NCAA started profiting enormously from its basketball tournament – the current TV contract is worth more than ten billion dollars – the sheriff became the saloon keeper.  And nobody can do both jobs equally well.   

Six years ago, the University of Southern California Trojans were suspected of giving the parents of its Heisman Trophy-winning tailback, Reggie Bush, a house.  A whole house.  I said at the time: Watch how slowly the NCAA moves on this one.  But even I didn’t think it would take five years for them to find the house – the kind of thing you can find with, say, a phone book.   

But when the five Buckeyes were busted, they were in danger of being suspended for their upcoming bowl game.  Suddenly, the same Keystone Cops who took five years to find a house sorted out the Ohio State mess in just a couple weeks.  Then they allowed the players to serve their five game suspension the following fall, when some or all of them might already be in the NFL.  

Now an email has turned up which seems to prove Jim Tressel knew about all of this back in April – but told the NCAA in December he knew nothing, no-how.  Oops.   

So that’s why Gene Smith came rushing back to Columbus to announce he would suspend Tressel for two games.  Sound serious?  It’s supposed to – but those first two games are against the Akron Zips and the Toledo Rockets – games the Buckeyes could not lose if they were paid to.     

If the suspended players stay in school, they will miss out on almost half their last season to prepare for their one chance at pro football.  Fair enough.  They brought it on themselves.  But their coach, who covered all of it up for a year, will be just fine.   

How can I be so sure?  Because his boss, Gene Smith, is currently the chairman of the NCAA committee for this year’s men’s basketball tournament – the NCAA’s cash cow.  If he’s not the sheriff, he’s the deputy.  He’ll find just enough wrong-doing to make it look like he’s doing something – and not one ounce more.   

The NCAA is no longer interested in integrity – just the image of it.  That’s what sells.  The suspended players don’t get that.  But Tressel does, and so does his boss.  They know the saloon owners won’t be too eager to investigate the saloon manager and his best bartender when business is booming.   

So, drink up.  This round’s on the house.

Copyright© 2011, Michigan Radio

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  • 3/11/2011 10:24 AM pat greeley wrote:
    whoa John...just a cotton-pickin' minute here. as a former beverage care professional, i resent being lumped in with likes of smith, tressel et al...bartenders have more ethics in a shot glass than these gentlemen carry in their entire attaches...
    Reply to this
    1. 3/11/2011 11:21 AM John U. Bacon wrote:
      Dear Pat,

      Points well taken, my friend!

      To all the honest and hard-working Beverage Care Professionals out there: please accept my sincere apologies for lumping you in with the ne'er do wells currently running college athletics.

      I promise never to be so careless again!

      Reply to this
  • 3/11/2011 10:31 AM Dr. Ed Kornblue wrote:
    Right on the MONEY, John U !
    Your sharp criticism of the NCAA, involving their recent behavior and inadequacies is well deserved.

    Your readers might also appreciate a column by Cristine Brennan in Thursday, March 10, USA Today, regarding the "matter of integrity"
    Reply to this
  • 3/11/2011 10:44 AM Andy Gremel wrote:
    How about that. Teddy Roosevelt getting involved to save the sport of college football and launch the NCAA! Actually, the Theodore Roosevelt Award is the highest honor the NCAA can bestow on an individual. It would be interesting to poll the living Award recipients regarding the proper punishment for Jim Tressel and OSU. I only wish Gerald R. Ford, the 1975 Award winner was still alive. I suspect his input would be spot on. Interesting too is that Ford won his Award one year after OSU graduate Jesse Owens receive his. I suspect the living recipients would be better “sheriffs” than the likes of Gene Smith! In the name of Roosevelt, they might just try to save college football again…
    Reply to this
    1. 3/11/2011 7:39 PM jean matthews wrote:
      Was it President T. Roosevelt who said his opponent,......" Would mount the stump of a giant redwood and make a conservation speech." Adlai Stevenson used this quote in one of his speeches...yes, I remember both of A.S.'s runs.......
      Reply to this
  • 3/11/2011 11:34 AM JJ Watts wrote:
    I am truly shocked by Jim Tressel's actions. You would think after all the little problems he had at Youngstown State, he would have embraced his clean slate, at Ohio State. But sadly for us football purists, the Tressel lead Buckeyes have committed some 375 "minor" violations since "the sweater vest" came to Columbus. Considering Tressel's impressive record over conference foes, maybe other schools will look to turn a blind eye on any of these "Minor" transgressions. Then maybe the Big 10 football fortunes will mirror the SEC's success. Hopefully, we will keep the integrity at the highest level of standards here in the Midwest. Sadly, listening the President Gee and the Buckeye "Nuts", Coach Tressel is the most important person on that campus. I guess winning cures all, but while the outward appearance of Brutus seems glowing, inside a cancer is spreading and the doctors at the NCAA may have to recommend a prolonged stay away from all BCS activities like the Southern Cal Trojans received.
    Reply to this
  • 3/11/2011 12:13 PM nick wrote:
    Is there any chance the NCAA does the right thing here given the staggering amount of evidence working against Tressel? Gene Smith is a deputy, sure. But sometimes facts are just facts...right?
    Reply to this
    1. 3/11/2011 1:06 PM John U. Bacon wrote:

      There actually is a chance, this time, because Smith's self-imposed penalties are so laughably weak -- even a majority of Ohioans said so in an ESPN poll -- that the NCAA might feel its hand is forced. As usual, the suspects are being too clever by half.

      Facts ARE facts -- but you usually have to want to find them to get them. And that's my point: We'll see just how great their desire for the truth is.

      Reply to this
  • 3/11/2011 12:21 PM Notbob wrote:
    This one needs to go the WSJ, if not USA Today. Another Bacon home run!
    Reply to this
  • 3/11/2011 12:51 PM Scott McConnell wrote:
    Loved the column – what drives me crazy about the NCAA’s “there’s nothing to see here” approach with schools like USC and Ohio State is that it also tarnishes the athletes and coaches that are playing by the rules and doing things the right way. When Cam Newton gets to play in the national championship game, Terrelle Pryor gets to play in the Sugar Bowl, and Jim Tressel gets to keep his job after two decades of violations at two different schools, it gives the impression that everyone must be doing the same thing. It’s a shame that the NCAA allows that to happen.
    Reply to this
    1. 3/11/2011 1:10 PM John U. Bacon wrote:
      Exactly right, Scott.

      I have covered college athletics for two decades, and have found the vast majority of administrators, coaches and players I've reported on to be on the level. (Granting that most of that time has been spent covering UM, which, even with the baseball money and Fab Five scandals, still does it far better than most.)

      But when the Cam Newtons and Jim Tressels get caught, it makes it very easy for the cynics to say, 'The whole thing is corrupt. Blow it up.'

      And, of course, that will be the next round of commentary. Bet you don't have to wait 24 hours for that to start.

      Reply to this
      1. 3/13/2011 10:26 AM Andy Gremel wrote:
        ESPN's "Outside the Lines" just had Jalen Rose as a guest this morning. Pretty close to your "Blow it up" prediction...
        Reply to this
  • 3/13/2011 12:59 PM bob robinson wrote:
    very good
    Reply to this
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