Generally there are three types of people who get blamed in major NCAA infraction cases.
The greedy player and/or player’s family member; the bumbling assistant coach or the rogue agent and/or booster. Those are the folks who get labeled, fired, kicked out of school. It’s almost never the head coach, athletic director or anyone else in power. The bosses deftly maintain plausible deniability while shifting the blame to an easier target.
This is what made the Jim Tressel/Ohio State case so unique – an email paper trail that caught an iconic head coach. Tressel is gone now, resigning Monday after 10 seasons in Columbus.
Since then, the case has, quickly and predictably, returned to college sports’ tried-and-true survival playbook.
The scapegoat now is quarterback Terrelle Pryor, perfectly filling the greedy player role in this tired act.
On Monday, the day Tressel resigned, someone leaked to the Columbus Dispatch that Pryor was the focus of a “significant” NCAA investigation into memorabilia sales, impermissible benefits and questionable cars.
Who was the leak? Well, I’d bet a Nissan 350Z that it was someone within Ohio State’s athletic department. NCAA sources are notoriously tight-lipped. And besides, no one benefits from Pryor becoming the focus of media and fan scrutiny more than the Buckeye athletic administration, especially at that precise moment in time.
And boy has it worked.
The endless feed of highlights and discussion and anonymous reporting on ESPN – among other outlets – is about Pryor. Will he ever play for OSU again? Are teammates blaming him for Tressel’s demise? How many cars did he have? Will he enter the supplemental draft?
What isn’t being discussed are the men in charge: school president E. Gordon Gee, athletic director Gene Smith and Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, all of whom mishandled the case.
Let’s be clear on what’s gone on here.
In April 2010, Tressel was informed, via email, about Pryor and some other Buckeye players dealing memorabilia to a local tattoo parlor owner who was linked to a federal drug trafficking investigation. In violation of NCAA rules, Tressel told no one and covered it up, ostensibly so he could get his star players on the field for the 2010 season, where the Buckeyes were a national title contender (they finished 12-1).
In December 2010, the school’s administration was informed, via the local U.S. Attorney’s Office, about Pryor and some other Buckeye players dealing memorabilia to a local tattoo parlor owner who was linked to a federal drug trafficking investigation. It was news that should’ve rocked Smith and Gee to the core, prompting an exhaustive investigation into the conduct of the football program.
Instead they conducted a shallow 11-day investigation that called for the suspension of Pryor and four other players. Then Smith comically promised “there are no other NCAA violations around this case.”
From the start, the investigation carried no credibility because it was implausible that Ohio State could conclude a case involving so many players in such a short period of time. We’re talking 100-plus players on this year’s team alone. And while the entire time frame took 11 days, the school likely came to its conclusion in less time than that, since it spent a number of days lobbying the NCAA to allow Pryor and the others a reprieve to play in the Sugar Bowl.
This wasn’t a proper investigation. It was a joke, nothing but a rush job because Ohio State and the Big Ten wanted its star players on the field so it could defeat Arkansas of the hated SEC. (It worked, OSU won 31-26).
Just months later, two Sports Illustrated reporters, lacking the access, resources and depth of information Ohio State had, reported at least nine other current Buckeyes were involved in memorabilia sales at the tattoo parlor. It proved Smith’s bold conclusion of “no other violations” ridiculous. There were always other violations there. Ohio State just didn’t dare take the time to look for them.
If Tressel engaged in a complete whitewash of the case then Gee and Smith weren’t too far behind. They technically cooperated with the NCAA and put together an investigation, but like Tressel it wasn’t designed to discover the full truth.
It was about making sure Ohio State could win.
Then there is Delany. The Big Ten commissioner is way too smart and way too experienced to have ever believed the Ohio State investigation was anything but a show. A commissioner committed to compliance would’ve taken one look at this and demanded the school to get serious, take its time and find out what really was going on.
Instead he played right along and provided political cover, even personally lobbying the NCAA for the Sugar Bowl exemption.
Gee, Smith and Delany did the same thing as Tressel; it’s just varying degrees of the same thing seeking the same conclusion.
The bogus, hurry-up December investigation is what the focus of the Ohio State case should now be about. The hypocrisy of college athletics should be discussed. The role of the institution and the question about whether this was a cover-up by some of the most powerful and highest-paid people in college athletics?
Instead, with one quick leak to the Dispatch, it’s all Pryor all the time.
He’s an easy target, of course, the cocksure quarterback who does inexplicable things like drive a sweet car to Monday’s team meeting to discuss Tressel’s resignation. He’s probably not compliant with NCAA rules, although neither Ohio State nor the Big Ten was very concerned about that until this week.
That’s what players such as Pryor have always been when scandal breaks, though – easy scapegoats. The wealthy men who run college athletics have used them for years to shift public attention away from their own conduct, their own culpability, their own part in writing and enforcing so many of the NCAA’s untenable rules.
Blame the player. Blame the greed. Blame the one bad seed. Just keep ignoring those suits behind the curtain that always make sure the rules obey them, not the other way around.
- Terrelle Pryor
- Ohio State