Dave Zirin was named one of UTNE Reader's "50 Visionaries Who Are Changing Our World," and is the sports editor for The Nation magazine.
It's fitting that Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel resigned in disgrace on Memorial Day. This is, perhaps, the most misunderstood holiday on the books: a day used by politicians to celebrate war, which was first organized by freed slaves to honor Union soldiers buried in a Charleston, South Carolina, mass grave. The connection lies in the deception.
In the process of leading the Ohio State Buckeyes to annual glory and becoming the highest-paid public employee in the state, Tressel gave the appearance of a humble, God-fearing, small-town Ohio coach who had somehow landed his dream job. He was Coach Norman Dale from Hoosiers, if Norman Dale had landed the head job at Indiana University. Yes, there were ethical lapses along the way, but that was always put on the shoulders of the morally fallible teenagers under his charge. Over two decades in coaching, Tressel cultivated the persona of the last honest man in Sin City.
But the hammer did fall. Tressel, after months of stalling and dissembling, finally resigned on Memorial Day because he knew Tuesday would bring a Sports Illustrated expose that would have provoked outright dismissal. According to the scathing report by George Dohrmann with David Epstein, dozens of players under Tressel's charge traded OSU memorabilia, including championship rings, for everything from tattoos to marijuana. Buckeye gear was their currency in Columbus. Sports Illustrated uncovered that Tressel knew this was happening as far back as 2002, which is a far different story than what he's told school officials and the NCAA. For a coach, being aware of violations but refusing to report them is the ultimate cardinal sin. The private Tressel has been exposed as more concerned about wins and losses than complying with NCAA rules — or the standards of ethical behavior he endlessly espoused in public.
Maybe all the adulation, the $3.5 million annual base salary and the free access to a private jet warped a once-virtuous man. When OSU President E. Gordon Gee was asked when the scandal first broke if he had given any thought to firing Tressel, he joked, "I'm just hoping that the coach doesn't dismiss me." Maybe Tressel started to actually believe that he was, as a book about him was titled More than a Coach. Or maybe he's been ethically flexible from the moment he put a whistle around his neck. One thing is certain: Tressel's "integrity," "humility" and "paternal nature" have been exposed as a heavily marketed commercial persona. Instead of having character, he has now become a character: the hypocritical sports moralist, who sits in judgment of others while wearing nothing beneath the robe.
The Sports Illustrated expose is a terrific piece of investigative journalism — and yet it fails in one respect. It doesn't take a step back and ask whether a system is insane in which players trade the rings off their fingers or the shirts off their back to get the college-age amenities most students take for granted. As more and more obscene amounts of money have poured into so-called amateur sports — the Big Ten conference signed a television contract worth $770 million — these kinds of scandals are endemic. Consider that Ohio State's legendary coach Woody Hayes made $43,000 at the peak of his powers. It's a different world for everyone — except the players themselves.
As OSU English professor Pranav Jani said to me, "I guess there's something positive in the fact that that we've created a climate in which Tressel's tremendous success couldn't excuse his unethical behavior. But I'm waiting for the day when we ask bigger questions. Why should universities facing steep budget cuts pay, oh, about $3.5 million a year or so for top coaches? What if student athletes, who create so much revenue by their play, were actually paid for it — and didn't feel like they had to sell merchandise to find deals on cars? It's easy, and even entertaining, to point to the hypocrisy of someone like Tressel, who lied through his teeth while writing books to teach people about responsibility and ethics. But the rot is much deeper than this. Tressel is the symptom, not the disease."
Now more than ever, the NCAA is the disease: a gutter economy so lacking in moral direction they can provide the television show South Park's avatar of amorality Eric Cartman the ethical high ground. Cartman, in his efforts to build a slave economy around his "crack baby basketball league" (please don't ask), approaches the president at the University of Colorado to inquire "Like yourself I am in the slave trade.... So how do you get around not paying your slaves?" Although outraged at Cartman's impudence,the college president can't explain how his players aren't in fact slaves. South Park is, in my humble view, tired, toilet humor for emotionally retarded libertarians. But on this point, they pancake-block the NCAA into oblivion.
A plantation-economy nonprofit really has no place in a civil society. College football needs to be shut down and reopened under new management. Give players a stipend, guarantee scholarships for four years, cap salaries of head coaches, and start over because the current model has failed: morally, ethically and economically. Maybe it's appropriate that Tressel resigned on Memorial Day. Maybe we can remember this day as the start of a mourning process: mourning the death of both our feigned innocence and do-nothing cynicism about the reality of big-time college sports.