In our 24/7 news cycling, Twitter following culture, conclusion jumping has become so prominent it may become an Olympic event in 2012. Witness the daily fluctuations in the “legacy” of Lebron James. One day, he’s better than Jordan, today, he is “shrinking.”
This same dynamic is at work in the other big sports story of the moment: Ohio State football (Sorry Stanley Cup Finals and MLB regular season). A recent flurry of activity including Jim Tressel’s resignation and Terrelle Pryor’s announcement that he is foregoing his senior season at OSU have many prematurely summarizing this event. What we know, however, is still dwarfed by what we don’t know. It’s the answers to these still unresolved questions that will ultimately shape the conclusion of this matter.
Here is what we know so far: Terrelle Pryor and five other teammates traded Ohio State memorabilia for free tattoos and possibly cash payments. Sports Illustrated alleged that this practice was more widespread, but as I pointed out here George Dohrmann’s narrative has some serious holes in it. That’s what happens when writers jump the gun.
ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” provided more substance by disclosing that Pryor had also been paid upwards of $40,000 for “signing sessions” by a Columbus-area memorabilia salesman.
We also know from previous reports that Jim Tressel was aware of Pryor’s dealings and had been in contact with Pryor’s mentor, head coach, and a FBI agent. It is that last point of contact that hasn’t been discussed very much and could be the key to this entire case.
There are still many questions out there that haven’t been satisfactorily addressed that have major implications on this investigation.
Why did Jim Tressel address this situation so differently? We know that when Maurice Clarett was being investigated for improper benefits back in 2003, Tressel suspended him. We also know that after it was found that Troy Smith received $500 from a booster, he was suspended for the Alamo Bowl and the beginning of the next season, which put Justin Zwick at the controls against Texas rather than Smith who hadn’t seen game action since the previous season. Tressel’s past actions tell us he has had no problem removing players who break the rules. Why did he allow this to go on without any action?
How does Gene Smith, OSU’s athletic director and former member of the NCAA’s committee on infractions, “look the other way” at this? We now know that Smith couldn’t have been entirely forthright when he asserted that “Tat-gate” was an “isolated incident” only involving those players. Smith is now under fire himself and facing the possibility of dismissal. This action seems terribly out of character for him as well.
E. Gordon Gee, the same president who infamously “celebrated” a tie with Michigan and folded Vanderbilt’s athletic program into the general student activities department, is somehow now supposed to have been running cover for a rogue football program at his university? This one really doesn’t make sense. It’s not as if the cast of characters in this case resemble any of those in past scandals of this magnitude. Tressel is no Barry Switzer, Smith no Cliff Hagan, and Gee is certainly no SMU president offering cash to players. The actions of all the principles in this case are quite curious.
Why was the press conference in March such a circus? It was put together rather hastily following Yahoo! Sports breaking of the story regarding Tressel’s awareness of “Tat-gate.” In that conference, Tressel, Smith, and Gee all looked unprepared. It included Gee’s now infamous statement that “I hope Coach Tressel doesn’t fire me.” Jim Tressel came by the nickname “The Senator” honestly. Even in halftime interviews, Tressel has the ability to control the message and speak only what he wants to say. Smith is the director of the most lucrative athletics department in the country and has been the spokesperson for the NCAA basketball tournament selection committee. He’s got a track record of being able to field tough questions. Gee is perhaps the greatest fundraiser in the country. He too is an accomplished speaker, not prone to sticking his foot in his mouth. Why were they so off-message on March 8?
Was the “unrelated incident” Smith spoke of in January that uncovered the e-mails related to the federal investigation? Here’s where it gets interesting. The involvement of the FBI in this matter has largely been ignored or forgotten to this point. Both Smith and Tressel were clear from the beginning that a federal matter that involved players presaged all of this controversy. Tressel went so far as to say he feared for the safety of the players involved and that it was a federal drug-trafficking investigation. That makes sense. The FBI doesn’t get involved in a case of players selling jewelry for tattoos or getting under the table payments for autographing memorabilia. It does show up, however, at places like Toledo and San Diego, and Auburn (remember this one? It’s not over yet) where federal crimes are being committed.
Why has the NCAA been so quiet? The NCAA has been remarkably silent during this whole matter. Have they been preoccupied by the USC ruling? Their lack of comment on this case is consistent with their behavior in other matters where the FBI has been involved (see Toledo, San Diego). As the NCAA has no subpoena power, it’s necessary for them to take a “back seat” when federal investigators become involved.
Could it be that what’s happening in Columbus is bigger that Jim Tressel? Bigger than Smith and Gee? Bigger than Ohio State? Bigger even than the NCAA? I don’t the answers to all of these questions yet, but one thing is clear: there has been some curious behavior thus far by a number of principles in this investigation. This behavior leaves lingering questions that lead to some intriguing possibilities.