One of the few truly iconic figures of American sport — the coach who restored Ohio State football to glory, who was expected to head the program for at least another decade — fell on his sword Monday in response to allegations of NCAA rule-breaking, and I can't help but think there was a better way "out" here.
A sad day in Ohio is made sadder because we have to ask whether Jim Tressel, as valuable a natural resource as there was in the state, was unnecessarily sacrificed in his prime for not being perfect.
"He lied. He had to go," is much too simple here, not least because the same thing will continue to happen until the sun burns out: When a set of rules lacks fundamental integrity, people will systematically break those rules as long as they're in place. And we really don't have to split hairs when we're talking about a billion-dollar industry that runs almost entirely on free labor. At least not when we're talking about rules that prohibit the indentured servants — in this case, college football players — from trading their own possessions at market value (swapping team-issued equipment for tattoos is the substance of the crimes that Tressel allegedly covered up).
It's not just the fact that anyone who has played any sport at a junior-varsity high school level knows that a varsity sport at any level in college is more than a full-time job. No matter what you think about the importance of the NCAA's cash cow maintaining a veneer of amateur idealism, there's not a more relatable narrative in this drama than the one spun by former Buckeye defensive lineman Robert Rose, quoted in a so-called "bombshell" Sports Illustrated report this week:
"I knew how much money that the school was making," Rose said. "I always heard about how Ohio State had the biggest Nike budget. I was struggling, my mom was struggling ... [Other] guys were doing it for the same reasons. The university doesn't really help. Technically, we knew it was wrong, but a lot of those guys are from the inner city and we didn't have much, and we had to go on the best we could. I couldn't call home to ask my mom to help me out."
Why bother Mom anyway when you're surrounded by people who are falling all over themselves to give you things? Former Buckeye receiver Ray Small explained, in a separate SI report: "You go out and you just, people show you so much love, you don't even think about the rules. You're just like 'Ah man, it's cool.'"
Or at least that's what you were like. The glorious tribalism of big-time college football being what it is, parties to transactions such as those described by Small do tend to be just the kind of folks who take these secrets to their grave. Nobody believes that the same deals aren't common with every major program. But the emergence of internet communication — like the e-mail trail that was the proximate cause of Tressel's undoing — and the 24-hour sports-news cycle have created systemic critical breaches in these ancient circles of trust. Now we're in a place where the infractions aren't just impossible to police, but also impossible to hide. Tressel is a man caught between eras in the worst possible way.
Whatever else one might say about college football today, nobody trusts much of anything about the rules that are supposed to govern it — and that was true well before the Tressel scandal surfaced. It's long been easy to see that times have changed, and that new circles will have to be formed. What's not clear at all is why Ohio State couldn't have been more upfront about this, or why the university and college football at large aren't better off with The Vest more invested in this process.