Ohio State’s Five Stages of Grief
In January, it was revealed that Jim Tressel, Ohio State University’s head football coach, knew about the “tat-gate” players’ wrong-doing in time to keep them from taking the field. He chose to let them play anyway. In addition to letting the infractions happen and not reporting them or stopping them, when they were discovered, he kept his mouth shut about having ever known. Later, he advocated for a suspended sentence, so that the players could play in a bowl game. He did all of this after having signed a document stating that he wasn’t aware of any infractions or possible infractions and sending that off to the NCAA. It wasn’t pretty in January, but that was only the beginning.
Yesterday, the other shoe dropped in the form of a Sports Illustrated piece that laid bare just how dirty a shop Tressel has been running.
Watching Ohio State partisans react to this news has been fascinating, as the gravity of the allegations seem not to have had any impact on them whatsoever. Numerous blog and forum postings continue to revere the man as respectable and trustworthy. Some blame the NCAA, others blame journalism, and a huge portion of them have trotted out the “he made a mistake, no big deal” line. This is misguided, but there’s nothing that can be said at this point to convince them — all we can do is sit by and watch it unfold. All good dramas need a playbill, though, and the one that most accurately sums up the acts we’ll see this time around follows the Kübler-Ross model.
The Kübler-Ross model explains the five stages of coping with the grief of dying. It’s not a wholly inadequate comparison, as what Ohio State is likely to do over the course of the next five or ten years could look very, very similar to death.
This is what we’re seeing right now and it’s not pretty. Denial comes in several different flavors, for your reading pleasure. One of the more resigned forms of denial is: “everyone cheats”. It’s a claim which is now so well-worn that it shouldn’t be used simply because it is so cliche. But those aren’t as much fun as the other two, which tend to be deployed in tandem: the “you can’t prove it” defense and its partner “the witnesses are sketchy”1. These are not the only examples in the wild, but Eleven Warriors provides us a nice summary:
No concrete proof can be given about any of the allegations, except through the pictures that Ellis provided SI, which show some of the players already known to be involved in the scandal, plus Thad Gibson, at Eddie Rife’s business.
Meeting this “concrete proof” standard is near impossible in any circumstance, let alone one where the guilty parties are actively trying to avoid detection. It is also, conveniently enough, a moving goalpost: you will rarely (if ever) see someone in this situation articulate exactly what evidence should be required. Here, we have a situation where Tressel has admitted that he knew about some violations and decided not to report them. He was so unmoved by the fact that his players were violating NCAA rules that he “couldn’t think who to tell”. We are expected to believe, given that attitude, that those were the first violations at OSU he knew about and said nothing? Even after his history of play fast and loose with the rules? I will grant that this is possible. Unfortunately for Jim Tressel, once you are determined to be a liar, your claims of innocence and/or ignorance are much more difficult to swallow.
Based off of interviews from two anonymous former employees of Eddie Rife, Dustin Halko and a man called “Ellis” for the purpose of this article, it is the central issue for a number of reasons. First, there’s basically no chance in hell that any NCAA investigator would be able to find something solid on alleged misconduct by players years after the fact based on the testimony of a convict.
I read that statement several times, probing for sarcasm or irony, but found none. It’s a somewhat bewildering stance, given both that the standard of proof required by the NCAA is far lower than that required by criminal courts, and criminal courts regularly convict people well after the fact on the testimony of current and former criminals, but also because this could easily be a description of how the NCAA came to nail USC to the wall for Reggie Bush.
There seems to be little in the way of denial that the events took place, but a great deal of denial that the NCAA will care. For starters, if players — even “just” 28 of them — made habit and practice of exchanging the spoils of their athleticism for profit, it wouldn’t be a far stretch for the NCAA to rule them retroactively ineligible for violating amateurism rules. There’s also the looming specter of both “Failure to Monitor” and “Lack of Institutional Control”, both of which are their own violations to deal with, and neither of which are particularly helped by claims of ignorance. Even if these additional cases do not result in additional violations, you can bet that when the COI is setting the penalties, these will be discussed.
Assuming the SI piece is “much ado about nothing” is a spectacular work of denial.
In the not-too-distant future, the NCAA is going to have something to say about this (and the other investigations currently on-going). When the head-coach of your program gets caught explicitly ignoring NCAA rules just to win some games, there are going to be consequences. Probably severe ones, as the NCAA relies on self-policing to a large extent, which means they have a tremendous incentive to make covering-up cheating even less attractive than just cheating.
There will be anger.
The anger will be pointed in a nearly unlimited number of directions. OSU fans will blame the NCAA, Michigan, the SEC, shady tattoo artists, coaches and players who they’ve disowned, and countless others. It will be vitriolic, intense, and real. Mere mention of the NCAA or Tressel will probably raise the average OSU fan’s blood pressure measurably. There will be conspiracy theories, allegations of both “hatin’” and “snitchin’”, and an occasional threat of retalition.
It’ll all be for nothing, of course, because it appears that OSU has earned a bit of punishment (probably on par with USC’s), but that’s how it’ll go.
This is a process that will be more undertaken by the University2, and has probably already started. Leading up to the infractions, this will be done by throwing employees under the bus and being very accommodating to NCAA investigators. Tressel’s “resignation” was likely the first offering. If sanctions are released, a new round of bargaining will take place wherein OSU will explain why their punishment was totally excessive and undeserved.
You likely won’t see much of this from the fans, unless they’re drunk and weepy, which is unfortunate if you delight in the misfortune of others because the bargaining stage is easily the most pathetic of the two.
You will be able to witness this for anywhere from three to ten years after the NCAA hands down its sanctions. It will look exactly like you’d expect it to look like when a team spends a decade winning and then has that taken away from them.
We’re still a long ways off from this, but if even Alabama fans can come to accept that their team deserved what it got in the Albert Means scandal, Ohio State fans will figure it out, too. Although probably not as quickly3.
Maybe the most compelling part of this story is that it isn’t over yet. A couple of kids trading jerseys for tattoos is likely the tip of the corruption iceberg. One reason why the NCAA puts such an emphasis on “promoting an environment of compliance” is that it is difficult or impossible to teach that some external rules can be broken but some of them cannot. The list of “acceptable” crimes will begin to creep, little by little, until you get to the point where really anything is okay as long as you don’t get caught. After all, is trading merchandise for cash really all that different from pay-for-play?
- This post’s featured image is ‘So this is why people think we bury our head in the sand‘ by Flickr user sallylondon.