Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Thoughts on The Ohio State University

Some random thoughts on Ohio State (even if, as a Northwestern fan, I am enjoying a wee bit of schadenfreude):

1) I read Zach Lowe's piece linked by Mike connecting this scandal to the NBA age limit, but I do not buy the connection.  Whatever the merits of allowing more players to go pro right away and therefore incentivizing more players to do so (either straight to the big leagues or into some professional minor league system), is not going to change the fact that improper benefits are going to be spread around to the players that do go to college. Especially since, as Lowe points out, only the "tiniest subset" of players are able to go straight to the NBA--and an even tinier subset would be able to go straight to the NFL. There are always going to be star players who go to college or players who, in college, become stars. And as long as college football and basketball continue to be popular as sports, boosters and others will continue to be on the scene and players will still get cars, tattoos, cash, etc. In fact, we still would have the current case. Other than Aaron Terrelle Pryor, would any of the other five suspended players have been able to skip college? Probably not. For that matter, were any of the other five stars?

The issue is not, as Lowe argues, that we are "forc[ing] this pseudo-amateurism on players who don’t want it." A lot of players will still choose college, especially if the choice is between college and NBDL or overseas. But pseudo-amateurism remains and that is the issue across the board. So might this be the final straw, the one that makes people push to change a broken system?

2) Ohio State is in some trouble. Their narrative right now is that this is a problem with a few players and the coach and by suspending the players accepting (and perhaps even forcing) Tressel's resignation, the problem has been resolved. But there is an institutional component to this. OSU conducted an investigation that found only six players had received benefits for merchandise, a conclusion contradicted by the Sports Illustrated story, which said as many as 28 players had received similar benefits over the past nine years. This might suggest that the internal investigation was, at best, poorly done, and, at worst, a cover-up. Plus attention is now turning towards other benefits given to players, most notably access to cars. This suggests the issue of players receiving benefits goes much deeper. At what point does this reach the institution--namely AD Gene Smith and President E. Gordon Gee.

3) It is ironic that Gee should be at the heart of a mess like this. He has an enjoyed a great deal of success as an administrator at several universities, including Colorado, Brown, Vanderbilt, and Ohio State twice. He is perhaps best known for eliminating the independent athletics department and the position of athletics director at Vanderbilt, bringing intercollegiate athletics within the Division of Student Life, a move he pushed precisely to ensure greater institutional control over sports teams and the elimination of what he called "semi-autonomous fiefdoms." Controversial at the time, the move has proven to be very successful for Vanderbilt.

Yet when Tressel admitted to lying about his knowledge of the benefits and was suspended in March, Gee responded to the question of whether he had considered firing Tressel by saying "Are you kidding? I'm just hopeful the coach doesn't dismiss me." That reflects a very different--and unfortunate--attitude towards college sports, but one that recognized the realities of OSU, as opposed to Vanderbilt.

If Gee loses his job over this (or even if he doesn't), it will be unfortunate that someone who tried something radical and creative to make the system work, and who recognized that the system needed some creative changes, has been undermined by everything that is wrong with the system.