The Curious Case Against Ohio State Football

Ohio State finally gets its day in NCAA court this morning when athletic director Gene Smith, deposed head coach Jim Tressel and a team of presumably high-priced legal eagles travel to Indianapolis to meet with the NCAA Committee on Infractions.

Since you are reading this, I will assume you know why the Buckeyes are on their way to Indianapolis, but on the off chance you have been on safari, taken a trip to Mars or take for gospel some of the mud that has been slung over the past six months, here in a nutshell is what has brought us to this point.

Five Ohio State players traded some personal items – championship rings, jerseys, etc. – for tattoos in 2009. No big deal really since many young men in this era seem intent upon graffiti-ing their bodies. Unfortunately, that sort of bartering is frowned upon by the NCAA. Worse yet, the players’ tattoo parlor of choice was under FBI surveillance in a federal drug trafficking case.

In April 2010, Tressel received e-mails regarding the incident and because he did not forward that information to Smith or share it with the NCAA, he was the biggest crook since Al Capone and the coach was later forced to resign/retire.

Despite the breathless hand-wringing of some, that’s pretty much it. No more, no less.

One of the players, quarterback Terrelle Pryor, had other issues that ran afoul of the NCAA and Ohio State had little choice but to suspend him for the entire 2011 season. When Pryor discovered that, he left the program and made himself available for the NFL via the supplemental draft. Meanwhile, OSU tailback Boom Herron, offensive tackle Mike Adams, wide receiver DeVier Posey and defensive end Solomon Thomas remain and will sit out the first five games of this season, a slate that includes a crucial road game at Miami (Fla.) and the Big Ten season opener at home against Michigan State.

One of the winningest coaches in the history of the program has been shamed and shunned, the three-year starting quarterback has been run off and four other starters on what could be considered a national championship contender will be unavailable for nearly one-third of the season. Add vacating the entire 2010 season, including a Sugar Bowl victory over Arkansas, as well as an ongoing period of NCAA probation and the penalties seem a lot more than a mere slap on the wrist. Yet, it’s not nearly enough for the sanctimonious lot that predicted Draconian penalties and want their pound of flesh as vindication.

They want nothing less than bowl bans and scholarship reductions. Never mind the discretions committed by Tressel and his players do not rise to the level of that type of punishment. Never mind that no school facing the allegations Ohio State is facing has ever been levied a postseason ban or a reduction in annual scholarship numbers. Nevertheless, Dennis Dodd, Bruce Hooley, Mark May, George Dohrmann and those of their ilk live in their own reality, one where they are king and they make the rules. In their kingdoms, nothing less than bringing the Ohio State football program to its knees will be good enough.

This isn’t anything new, of course. Others have tried to bring down the program in the past, better men than the aforementioned gang (and countless others) could ever hope to be.

One of the first attempts came in 1901. During a 6-5 home victory over Western Reserve, OSU star performer John Sigrest suffered a serious neck injury and died two days later in a Columbus hospital. In the wake of the tragedy – Sigrest is the only player ever to die from injuries sustained during an Ohio State football game – a large portion of the faculty and student body favored abolishing football at the university. It wasn’t until Sigrest’s brother, Charles, who was the team’s right tackle, strongly defended the game and urged the sport be continued that university officials relented and voted to continue fielding a football team.

Sixty years later, Alumni Association secretary Jack Fullen suggested Ohio State give up any pretense of amateurism, hire a professional team and control it under a bureau of football. He also made no bones about his assertion that Woody Hayes was borderline insane and should not have been entrusted to molding the lives of young men. That notion may seem ridiculous now but Fullen definitely had his proponents. Following the 1961 season when Ohio State could have gone to the Rose Bowl and perhaps won a consensus national championship, the university’s 44-member Faculty Council voted to deny the Buckeyes their trip to Pasadena under the guise that athletics was overtaking academics on the campus.

The university’s Board of Trustees – largely feckless then as it is today – refused to overturn the Faculty Council’s vote, but there was such a huge public display of disagreement that no Rose Bowl invitation extended to the Buckeyes has ever been turned down since. It is also worth noting that Fullen lasted only six more years on campus while Hayes coached another 17 seasons.

Fast forward to today, a half-century later, and the “cause” has been joined by several different factions. Some are disgruntled, some are misguided and some are simply trying to cover their own asses. The foundation for all of the venom, however, has been championed mostly by the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network of Bristol, Conn.

It is anyone’s guess why a behemoth such as ESPN – a company whose entire being is inexorably married to big-time sports – would want to take down one of college football’s elite programs and thereby diminish what must be one of the network’s biggest moneymakers.

Supposition has been offered that ESPN is simply doing what every other big business entity tries to do – crush the competition, which in this particular case is the Big Ten Network. Unfortunately when you are in the news business, trying to crush the competition often means you must manufacture stories, rely upon questionable information provided by less-than-reliable sources and even massage the truth to keep the train moving in the direction you want it to move. There is a reason why Casey Anthony supposedly wearing an Ohio State cap got more coverage in a day than the drought in eastern Africa has received during the three years it has been going on. In newsrooms all over the world, the motto has become “It’s news because we say it is.”

As a member of the working media for more than 30 years, I have always cringed whenever someone screamed “I hate the media” or lumped us all together as biased toward one extreme or another. Nevertheless, I must admit there have been times (especially lately) when I hate the media, too – at least what some of the modern day media has become.

Since the Watergate scandal nearly 40 years ago, seemingly every enterprising journalism student in this country has fashioned himself/herself as the next Bob Woodward or Carl Bernstein. While there is nothing wrong with wanting to climb to the top of one’s profession, there is a fatal flaw in believing you are the next great investigative journalist especially when you have to bend (or make up) the facts of a story to fit whatever your particular bent is at the time. That is when you get Dohrmann, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2000 for exposing wrongdoing within the Minnesota basketball program. One begins to wonder how deserved that Pulitzer was if Dohrmann used the same kind of innuendo, hearsay from anonymous sources and generally shoddy journalism as in his hatchet job on Tressel that appeared in the June 6 issue of Sports Illustrated.

Still, all of the exposés from Dohrmann, all of the bitter blogs from Dodd and all of the righteous indignation of Hooley cannot add up to the incessant digging by ESPN. Even now, the so-called Worldwide Leader continues to beat the drum 24-7 by regurgitating old stories under the guise of breaking news.

Just last Sunday – coincidentally less than a week before Ohio State was to meet with the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions – ESPN bottom-fed again with a regurgitation of old news on its “Outside The Lines” program.

Some of the “revelations” included the mysterious figure who claims a booster named Dennis Talbott gave Pryor money in exchange for autographed items. During the interview, the man said Pryor often received between $500 and $1,000 “three to four times a week.” ESPN didn’t bother to do the math on that one because it would have had to report that Pryor received up to $4,000 per week. During the course of a normal football season, that would come to a grand total of $60,000. Who in their right mind believes anyone was shelling out $60,000 to Terrelle Pryor for his autograph?

A short time later, OTL offered a report from university police officers that in March 2010 they had to warn a man to stay away from Pryor. The man reportedly had stalked Pryor, repeatedly asking him to sign footballs and other memorabilia before police were asked to intervene. Yet this report was presented as if it was somehow Pryor’s fault the man was stalking him.

OTL also offered an interview from David Ridpath, a former compliance officer at Marshall and currently a professor of sports administration at Ohio University. Ridpath’s major contribution to the piece went this way: “Things like this that are going on at Ohio State are likely going on many other places but that doesn’t excuse Ohio State.” No one asked the professor the logical follow-up: “If it doesn’t excuse Ohio State, why does it excuse the many other places where things like this are going on?”

The program included a rehash of testimony from former Ohio State player Ray Small, someone else with a reputation for playing hard and fast with the truth not to mention a tendency to think of himself first, last and always.

“We all know the NCAA rules,” Small said, “but hey, when you’re in need of something, hey, you don’t care about them rules. You know?” Yeah, Ray. We know. We know you’re the last guy we’d want to be stuck with in a foxhole.

Lastly, we heard from ESPN college football writer Pat Forde and Hooley, who opined the Ohio State football program needs to be made an example of in the quest for harder crackdowns on NCAA violations. But while Forde simply restated the company line – although seemingly at times ill at ease with what was coming out of his own mouth – most of the sanctimony came from Hooley, who has had a case of the ass for Tressel ever since the coach cracked an ill-advised joke at the reporter’s expense during a weekly press luncheon several years ago.

Finally, less than 72 hours before the OSU-NCAA meeting, ESPN fired one final salvo when Forde reported that according to multiple sources, the NCAA notified Ohio State by letter last week that it is still investigating other issues involving the football program and the result could be a second notice of allegations and a second trip through the NCAA justice system.

Forde alluded to the Pryor-Talbott connection as well as a Columbus Dispatch report that scrutinized dozens of automobile sales to OSU athletes and family members from a pair of Columbus-area dealerships.

It doesn’t matter than Pryor is long gone and that the “Great Car Scam” has been pretty much debunked by everyone from Ohio State to the state Bureau of Motor Vehicles. Like the playground bully or jilted lover, ESPN continually screams, “This isn’t over until we say it’s over!”

I have often wondered: Why Ohio State? Why the sheer volume of vitriol directed at one particular program? Imagine for a moment that Troy Smith’s family had been given money and housing worth six figures during the Heisman-winning quarterback’s college career and then the school stonewalled the NCAA investigation for years. Imagine if during his recruitment Pryor’s father had shopped the quarterback’s services for $180,000. Imagine if the Buckeyes had been caught paying a couple of guys nearly $30,000 for “recruiting services.” Imagine how ESPN would have covered those scandals and then compare it with how the network actually covered investigations at USC, Auburn and Oregon.

In hindsight, we really shouldn’t be surprised. ESPN’s dogged determination to keep this story going is rivaled only by the way the Worldwide Leader backed up its truck of righteous indignation in 2003 during the Maurice Clarett ordeal. I can only surmise that somewhere along the line Tressel crossed swords with the higher-ups in Bristol and they swore vengeance. Unfortunately, that vengeance was not satisfied by Tressel’s departure. With its 24-7 presence and constant drumbeat that the Ohio State football program deserves severe punishment or the NCAA is nothing more than a paper tiger, ESPN long ago stripped itself of any pretense of impartiality.

In the end, it all comes down to a handful of kids being kids – knowing right from wrong but choosing the wrong path anyway. In the end, the Ohio State football program will survive. It will be bloodied but it will survive.

And what of those who have made it their own personal crusade to hinder that survival? Expect no embarrassment or pensive introspection when the NCAA decides the punishment Ohio State has already suggested indeed fits the crime. Like Don Quixote, another tilter at windmills, said, “I perceive everything I say as absolutely true, and deficient in nothing whatever, and paint it all in my mind exactly as I want it to be.”

Fortunately for the rest of us, in this particular case reality is about to trump perception.