Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Ohio State's Punishment: Fair, Foul, or Just Right?

"Great. A few weeks on the job and we're already under NCAA sanctions!"
Nearly a year ago to the day, Ohio State Athletic Director, Gene Smith, stood in front of a group of reporters to announce that five Buckeyes would be suspended for violating NCAA rules. It seems strange now that this happened only one year ago, as so much has changed since that day. The chaos that would soon engulf the program cost Ohio State their coach, their best players, an entire seasons worth of victories, their first Bowl win over an SEC team, the opportunity to compete in 2011, and much of the integrity and goodwill the program had built up over the years. All of it, gone. Just like that. And to think, most Ohio State fans scoffed at the notion that a few cheap tattoos could cost so much.

Yesterday, the NCAA announced its final ruling on OSU, hitting them with a one year bowl ban, three years of probation, a large monetary fine, and additional scholarship restrictions. Considering Ohio State’s arrogantly light “self-imposed sanctions,” this sure seems like a big blow. Not surprisingly, the sanctions have caused a bit of a firestorm in the media, both local and national. As a Columbus resident, it certainly is interesting to hear both sides. This is what they sound like:

Local:  “This is unfair! The NCAA is out to get us! These sanctions are WAAAAY too harsh!”

National:  “The NCAA let ‘em off the hook! They should have gotten the USC punishment!”

As I give you my take, keep in mind that I am neither an Ohio State fan nor a blogger with an agenda against them. I don’t particularly care for the Buckeyes, mostly because I have to hear about them far too often for my liking, but I’m not at all invested in their success or failure, either way.  

That having been said, I’m going to utter a phrase that is almost never heard in sports – the NCAA got it right. Shocking, isn’t it?! Granted, I will never understand how it could possibly take the NCAA one full year to arrive at the most obvious conclusion, but still, hats off for not screwing this up. The fact that both sides seem to be indignant, but not totally outraged, by the decision is pretty solid proof that the NCAA hit them with an appropriate punishment. Still, I imagine quite a few people will need to be talked off the ledge. Let’s break this thing down, starting with the local perception that the sanctions were too harsh:

(Please note: Not everyone in Columbus is delusional. I know some very knowledgeable fans that also think this was an appropriate punishment.)

Last week, I talked about the oft-used tactic of ‘distraction’ as it relates to winning debates/arguments, and it sure seems like this has been the go-to move for Ohio State supporters. We’ve spent so much time debating whether players should or shouldn’t be allowed to sell their merchandise, that we seem to have overlooked the fact that the rule currently does NOT allow it. Of course, if that debate gets shot down, then OSU fans can always turn to ‘Old Trusty’ – pointing fingers at other schools. “Never mind that our guys broke some small rules, look at what they’re doing!”

Taking all the distraction and rhetoric out of the equation, here are the relevant facts that OSU fans and supporters need to understand.

1.       Selling merchandise or receiving improper benefits is against NCAA rules. Whether those rules are fair or not is not relevant. There is no option to pick and choose the rules you think are fair. All rules must be followed by all programs.
2.       Ohio State players broke the rules. They made a tidy profit off their merchandise and got discounted tattoos because of their status as Buckeye football players.
3.       Jim Tressel was fully aware of the violations, and made a conscious decision to play those players with the full knowledge that they were ineligible.
4.       Even if every other school in the country is doing worse things, it does not change the fact that Ohio State is guilty.

From a purely logical standpoint, there is no denying that Ohio State deserved this tough of a punishment. The 2010 team was a strong championship contender for the most of the season, mostly on the backs of ineligible players. As I stated, and as has been proven, Tressel knew about the violations and chose to play ineligible players. His elaborate cover-up allowed them to have a successful season AND gave the NCAA an excuse to declare the players eligible for the Sugar Bowl. Essentially, it’s an eye for an eye punishment. OSU gained a great year from their violations, and the NCAA is stripping them of one in their punishment.

This is clearly NOT a case of the NCAA out to get Ohio State. Any talk of that is purely ignorant and biased. This was not a simple case of a few players gone bad; it was a case of an administrative failure from the top down. Jim Tressel, the self-proclaimed model of integrity and morality, covered up damaging violations and lied to the NCAA for months. Gene Smith, the schools AD, handled the entire situation poorly, coming across as incredibly arrogant in down-playing the severity of the problem. The Compliance Department…well, what the heck do these guys do anyway? Where were they on all this? Throw in the fact that various other violations were uncovered in the process, and you can see how big a mess this actually was.

Summary:  Ohio State clearly had some serious violations. This was not a matter of “sending a message to a big university,” it was a matter of punishing a school that broke the rules. Ohio State broke the rules, and now they have to pay the price.

Of course, the national media seems to think the price wasn’t high enough. In regards to that, the common refrain I’ve heard throughout the day is that Ohio State got off far more easily than USC did. While the two situations seemingly have some similarities, they most certainly have some major differences that prevent them from being an ‘apples to apples’ comparison. The biggest difference?

USC was hit with a “Lack of Institutional Control” charge.
Ohio State was hit with a “Failure to Monitor” charge.

That may not mean much to you, but it certainly means quite a bit to the NCAA Infractions Committee. While the ‘Failure to Monitor’ charge is pretty serious, it is not as serious as the ‘Lack of Institutional Control’ charge. Of course, the next logical question is why USC was hit with a more serious charge. After all, isn’t a cover-up by a head coach pretty serious?

That answer, of course, is yes. However, what happened at OSU pales in comparison to what happened at USC. While Tressel is certainly culpable for overlooking his players’ misdeeds, there is no evidence to suggest he actively participated in putting money into his players’ hands. In addition, these violations seem to be an isolated event, not only in the football program, but in the entire athletic department.

Now, let’s contrast that with USC, who were hit with violations in THREE sports during that short period of time! We all know about the Reggie Bush scandal, which by itself is far worse than anything Ohio State did. Bush received a staggering amount of money, got involved with an agent (a serious no-no in college sports), and was likely aided by an assistant coach, Todd McNair. That violation alone was probably enough to warrant a ‘Lack of Institutional Control’ charge, and that’s before you account for the O.J. Mayo scandal. Mayo’s handler, Rodney Guillory, was paid by former head coach, Tim Floyd, to steer Mayo to USC. That’s right, a ‘Pay-for-Play’ violation ON TOP OF the Reggie Bush scandal!

Summary:  Clearly, a comparison between USC and Ohio State is not fair. USC deserved every last bit of their rather harsh punishment. Hitting Ohio State with the same penalty would be wrong on every level.

What makes me most satisfied about the NCAA’s punishment is that the true villain got hit the hardest. The offending players certainly deserve to be held accountable for their actions, and the “they’re just kids” argument simply doesn’t cut it in this regard. I would have preferred a more forceful punishment from the school, but in no way am I outraged by how things turned out for them. I am, however, outraged by Jim Tressel’s actions throughout the process, and it’s only right that Tressel will still be feeling the effects of his five year ‘show-cause’ punishment long after Ohio State has recovered. As someone who takes their faith very seriously, I have a major problem with Tressel’s duplicitous actions and it’s only fair that he, and not the majority of innocent OSU players, take the brunt of the hit.

The best news for Ohio State fans, even those who think they were hit too harshly, is that the ordeal is finally done. The investigations are over, SI can finally go home, and the program can finally move forward.

While fans and analysts can look at how poorly the school handled everything, and how they probably could have gotten off easier by self-imposing a bowl ban this season (pretty obvious move, but apparently Gene Smith is an idiot), it’s tough to come away from this thinking Ohio State is going to suffer too much. In fact, I’d argue that they’re in better shape going forward than they were one year ago. As successful as Jim Tressel was, Urban Meyer is better.

Violations were made, rules were broken, and punishment must be handed out for it, and the NCAA handed out an extremely fair and appropriate punishment for what happened at Ohio State. While missing out on a bowl game next year will sting, the overall impact will be very minor. Maybe a player transfers, maybe a recruit de-commits…or maybe not. Fact is, Ohio State came out of the situation with arguably the best coach in the country, an incredibly talented young roster, and a potential top five recruiting class. My guess is that we won’t see Ohio State miss any more bowl games in the future.


  1. this is a rare occasion, Landers; on an OSU-related topic, we're in perfect harmony. I'll throw two thoughts out there, 1: Gene Smith is beyond idiot and I wish he would have resigned too. 2: I will go a step further and say the sanctions against OSU are not only fair, but beneficial. That's right-good for the program. You've alluded to this situation back in the Urban courtship. What Ohio State has gained now is a no-pressure year for a new head coach to groom his young team, recruit HIS guys, and install HIS system. As you've also mentioned, Buckeye fans are...well..fanatical, so this year with lowered expectations may be just what the doctor ordered to gear OSU to come out in 2012 with a STRONG run.

  2. Yeah, it really isn't the worst thing in the world. I think a lot of people overlook the talent OSU has coming back, and I think they can compete in the Big Ten as soon as next season. That having been said, they simply don't have the type of talent on the offensive and defensive lines to compete for a national championship. And really, isn't that all an OSU fan should be concerned about? As you said, Urban has a full season of reduced pressure/expectations to get his players and his system installed. By 2012, Braxton Miller could be the best QB in the Big Ten, the freshman WR's will be studs, the offensive line will be coached properly for the first time in a decade, and the defense will be stocked with top end talent. Honestly, I wouldn't be surprised if they were in the BCS conversation in 2012.