Sports Commentary
10:49 am
Fri March 11, 2011

Ohio State's Jim Tressel and the NCAA: the sheriff is now the saloon keeper

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 everyone 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, who then put them on e-Bay.

It all seems pretty petty, but it’s serious business to the NCAA.

In fairness, 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 on football fields 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 how 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.  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 a couple weeks – and allowed the players to serve their five game suspension the following fall, when some or all of them might 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. 

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 do so.   

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

How can I be so sure?

His boss, Gene Smith, is currently the chairman of the NCAA selection 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 good – 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.