After months of trying to stay afloat in the face of numerous allegations of NCAA violations, Jim Tressel’s ship has finally capsized. The final blow was dealt by a lengthy Sports Illustrated article which alleged that, among several other violations, no less than two dozen Ohio State players had traded memorabilia for tattoos and marijuana over the past five years. The NCAA calls it “lack of institutional control”, and the media has adopted the term “willful ignorance” to describe Tressel’s violations. Both are appropriate; but not to describe Jim Tressel.
Tressel is Tressel_3Associated Pressthe latest addition to a seemingly endless list of names to be dragged down into the mire of NCAA violations. He joins recent additions like Pete Carroll, Lane Kiffin, Bob Stoops, and Rich Rodriguez. What’s more, the list of players who have been tied to wrongdoing in recent years is a veritable collegiate all-star team. Cam Newton, A.J. Green and Marcell Dareus, three of the top four picks in April’s NFL draft, were all implicated in NCAA violations tied to receiving improper benefits. 14 North Carolina players were suspended for all or part of the season for improper contact with an agent, and the national championship runners up at Oregon are currently being investigated by the NCAA for paying $25,000 to a service involved in the recruitment of Heisman Trophy finalist LaMichael James and another player. In March four former Auburn football players said on HBO’s Real Sports that they received thousands of dollars over their careers from Auburn boosters and said that such NCAA violations were systemic throughout the program. Last year, USC was hit with the loss of 30 scholarships and a 2-year ban on postseason play and just this week was stripped of the 2004 National Championship. And these kinds of NCAA violations are nothing new, Alabama booster Logan Young was accused of paying a Tennessee high school football coach $150,000 to encourage one of his players to attend school in Tuscaloosa. That was simply how much the high school coach of one player received to influence his decision. Alabama received a two-year ban from postseason play and lost 21 scholarships.
The scope and prevalence of all of these scandals suggest that these violations are more rule than exception. Of the 12 most successful Division-I programs since 2000, six (Oklahoma, Ohio State, USC, Georgia, Auburn and Oregon) have been the subject of serious NCAA sanctions or investigations. So while fans from Austin to Ann Arbor express their shock at the precipitous fall of one of college football’s most lauded coaches, ask yourself this- who was the willfully ignorant one? The coach who turned a blind eye to the cars his star quarterback drove or the fans who continue to be surprised and outraged all over again every time a college program gets caught cheating? Time and time again over the last decade and particularly the last 12 months, high profile college players and coaches have gotten caught breaking rules, taking money, selling memorabilia, and covering it all up. If fans want to put their hand on the stove, express their outrage at getting burned, wait six months and repeat, that’s fine, but to call anyone “willfully ignorant” is woefully hypocritical. Memorial Day felt more like Groundhog Day this year as talking heads from all over the nation piled on another program for failing to control its players in accordance with the NCAA’s extensive compliance guidelines.
Such widespread violations have created an issue that threatens to undermine all of college football, yet the NCAA has chosen to treat only the symptom while ignoring the disease. The NCAA continues to look at each college program that breaks rules as an isolated incident, stripping schools of scholarships, wins and even championships while pretending that their sports still exist inside a bubble of idealized amateurism. The reality is that college football suffers from a systemic breakdown and conflict between what the NCAA believes, the fans want and the players deserve. Message boards, social media and the 24-hour sports news cycle have put more pressure on coaches than ever to win and win now. Add the fact that those same mediums have created 17-year old high school players who think that they are superstars before they ever step foot on campus and the result is that coaches are often left trying to walk the tightrope between NCAA compliance and the need to bring in the top recruits in the nation or find themselves doing pregame shows on CBS on Saturday mornings.
Is it possible to run a high level program, attract top recruits and win bowl games without bending the rules? Yes, but it isn’t easy, and it is only going to get harder until the NCAA finds a way to break the current rules of engagement. Consider this, according to a USA Today report from 2011, of the 65 teams among the top six football conferences plus Notre Dame (Independent), 63 have committed major NCAA rules violations and 37 have had major incidents in the last ten years. At Ohio State alone from 2000-2009, the school reported 375 NCAA rules violations. Yet the NCAA remains convinced that their own institution is somehow in control?
Jim Tressel was indisputably wrong for lying to the NCAA about blatant violations by his players, but he was not ignorant. If anything, Tressel was jaded, or perhaps simply ahead of the curve. This “lack of institutional control” is the reality of big-time college football today. By focusing their outrage on Ohio State instead of the NCAA, fans and media members are forgetting the past, dwelling naively on the present, and ignoring the grim future of college football.