Will NCAA Show Consistency When Ruling on Ohio State’s Infractions?

If you read this site regularly or follow me on Twitter, you know that I am in Ireland from May 17-25th. While I’m away, I’m sharing with you the work of Patrick Rishe, my collegue at SportsMoney on Forbes.com.

By: Patrick Rishe

On June 10th, 2010, Yahoo Sports reported that the NCAA’s probe into USC’s athletics program resulted in:

• A postseason ban in football following the 2010 and 2011 seasons;

• A loss of 30 total football scholarships over the 2011, 2012 and 2013 seasons;

• 4 years probation;

• A vacation of all football victories starting in December 2004 and running through the 2005 season, including the national championship win over Oklahoma in January 2005.

Many of these penalties were levied after the NCAA’s lengthy review of wrongdoing within the USC football program.  Specifically, wrongdoing by Reggie Bush and his family which included multiple cash payments from would-be sports marketing agents, a house for Bush’s parents, an automobile outfitted with rims and a stereo system, airfare, hotel stays, limousine service, meals, auto repairs, clothing, furniture, and appliances.

Now there is no question that these penalties were quite severe.  Partly because of the nature and the volume of infractions at hand (there were other infractions with USC’s men’s basketball and women’s tennis programs).  And partly because, in my opinion, the NCAA had additional venom because they felt the USC athletics department and the Bush family were less than accommodating during the investigation.

Prior to the penalties being levied during the investigation, I can recall friends of mine who did and still work within the NCAA using words like ‘arrogant’ and ‘elitist’ to describe former USC athletics director Mike Garrett.  An attitude that, at the time, permeated throughout the program.

An antagonistic, defiant attitude that showed little contrition or remorse over its actions.  And thus, garnered little sympathy or leniency when the NCAA handed down its punishment.

Conversely, at least prior to December 2010, I don’t think the average college football fan would use those same words and sentiments to describe Ohio State athletics.  I had the impression that NCAA Headquarters looked upon the Buckeye program rather favorably.

So that’s why the NCAA’s ruling and assessment of penalties for Ohio State on August 12th is so compelling.

Will they punish the Buckeyes more or less than they punished the Trojans?

Will that decision be based solely on a comparison of the infractions at hand, or will the NCAA show leniency towards Ohio State because (a) they proactively imposed self-penalties once the truth was discovered and (b) are better liked by NCAA administrators because the program is perceived more positively than USC’s program?

To review the Buckeyes’ mess:

- Coach Jim Tressel was notified in April 2010 via emails from a Buckeyes fan and former player that Ohio State players were trading signed jerseys and other memorabilia to a Columbus tattoo parlor owner for cash and reduced-price tattoos;

- Even though his contract and NCAA rules required him to notify athletic director Gene Smith, Ohio State President E. Gordon Gee or the university’s compliance department about this information, Coach Tressel did not;

- It was not until more than 9 months passed—and five players including quarterback Terrelle Pryor had been suspended for the first five games of the 2011 season—that Ohio State officials discovered the emails and confronted Coach Tressel. He finally admitted he knew of the players getting improper benefits;

- Coach Tressel was originally suspended for 2 games—later extended to the first 5 games this fall to match the punishment of the five players—and was fined $250,000, required to make a public apology, receive a public reprimand, and attend an NCAA compliance seminar which he will do June 6-10 in Tampa.

And just when you thought you heard the last of it, the Columbus Dispatch reported Saturday that the university is officially investigating used-car sales to at least eight football players and 11 players’ relatives from two Columbus, Ohio dealerships.

Now Ohio State, along with the rest of us, must sit back and await whether the NCAA chooses to impose further sanctions.  The ruling is set for August 12th.

So this begs the question: “What is equitable punishment for Ohio State when comparing their infractions to the infractions and penalties imposed upon USC?”

As it relates to athlete-specific violations, it seems that Reggie Bush’s infractions were more severe than Ohio State players selling their own memorabilia and getting discounted tattoos…though if fire follows the smoke from the afore-mentioned car sales report, that “severity gap” closes.  Especially if players and their relatives were getting discounted cars in exchange for Buckeye football tickets.

And I fear that ‘that’ fire might combust before summer’s end.

As it relates to the behavior of the coaches involved, at least former Trojans and current Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll had the good sense to get out of dodge before the mess landed on his front lawn.  Maybe he knew what Reggie Bush was up to, but it’s plausible that he didn’t.  Whether you think him corrupt, naive, goofy, aloof, or all of the above, there is no evidence to date that he knowingly lied to his superiors or NCAA investigators regarding Reggie Bush.

Conversely, Coach Tressel knowingly LIED.  He lied to his superiors at the university.  And his calculated deception allowed ineligible student-athletes to compete for Ohio State during the 2010 season.

Student-athletes have the luxury of falling back on the ”young and dumb” argument in the court of public opinion.  Coach Tressel does not have that luxury, especially since he and former players have had previous brushes with the NCAA both at Ohio State and his previous employer Youngstown State.

Just ask Tennessee and Bruce Pearl how the NCAA likes it when you lie to them.  Pearl lost his job because Tennessee wanted to save face with the NCAA, and we’ll find out in a few weeks when they go in front of the infractions committee whether this firing curried any favor.

So if a coach’s lies are seen as equally afoul of the rules as a player’s inappropriate receipt of money and gifts, then we should expect that Ohio State will receive further penalties come August.

Vacated wins?  Check.

Lost scholarships?  Check.

Bowl ban?  Check.

And, at the very least, a one-year suspension of Coach Tressel.  It still would not surprise me if Coach Tressel resigned in light of the continued heat he will face in the upcoming months.

Yet, there’s a small part of me that thinks the NCAA may not be as harsh with Ohio State as they were with USC.

I go back to the animosity that NCAA officials had with the USC program.  The NCAA went after USC the same way the federal government went after Barry Bonds.  They were unrelenting in their pursuit of justice, and they ultimately ‘got their man’.

At least Ohio State has shown a level of contrition which USC never did.

At least Ohio State was willing to impose penalties upon themselves which USC never did.

And because the athletic department has been proactive once the truth was revealed, this might be just enough to lessen the severity of the oncoming and added sanctions.

A fortune teller I’m not, but I can tell you that Coach Tressel and Ohio State football are about to lose a fortune’s worth of credibility and respect.

Only time will tell how severe the upcoming sanctions will be, and whether said sanctions will jeopardize the Buckeyes’ stranglehold on Big Ten football dominance.

But the NCAA is on trial as well, and there will be many interested observers ready to critique if the Buckeye sanctions are inequitably different from USC’s.

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Follow Patrick on Twitter @SportsDocRock or visit www.patrickrishe.net

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