The Ohio State Situation

Ever since Maurice Clarett's freshman lifestyle hit the news, fans of programs that compete with Ohio State on the field and on the recruiting trail have been accusing Jim Tressel of being a wolf in sheep's clothing, a corrupt leader of a corrupt program, but with enough rhetorical and sartorial flair to make people believe he is fundamentally a good guy. And as multiple star players were found to have run afoul of NCAA rules (first Clarett, but also Chris Gamble and Troy Smith), none but the first generating even a hint of controversy, the conviction of OSU's detractors grew, while Tressel's supporters wrote off such complaints as "sour grapes".

So how did we get here?

In retrospect, one could argue that the first salvo in the media effort to unearth the problems at Ohio State came not with the release of information about the "Tat 5", but with an article written two years ago by the Columbus Dispatch. 

Hiding behind the seemingly political headline Oversight vs Privacy at OSU this article suggested strongly to the detractors to that everything they suspected about Ohio State was indeed true.

The article documents Ohio State's stunningly long list of "secondary violations". To OSU fans, it is a non-story, just evidence of what they've always said. Ohio State's compliance department is very aggressive about finding and reporting every little infraction. To critics, it appears to document three things that they have been alleging for years.

1. Ohio State is committing a lot of violations. By the Dispatch's count, more than any other school in the country and more than the rest of the Big 10 combined.
2. Ohio State has a tremendous ability to see each violation as "isolated and incidental", and never draws any kind of conclusion about a pattern from these violations. 
3. Ohio State pushes some fairly serious violations through a reporting process that was created largely for minor and often unintentional violations.

For those who don't follow infractions very closely, a brief primer. Major violations are actions that were either systematic or intentional, and which create an advantage for the school. Secondary violations are typically items that are isolated (not part of a systemic or administrative problem) and incidental (impart no real competitive edge). For example, if coaches are allowed to call recruits on the phone once a week,  a coach may schedule a weekly Saturday morning call with a particular recruit. If the coach is sick one Saturday and calls on Sunday instead, that week he ends up calling on Sunday and again on Saturday. Twice in one week. That's a secondary violation.

Into that same heading, Ohio State has pushed multiple instances of improper benefits provided to Terrelle Pryor when he was a recruit. It feels like a different thing. The phone calls are obviously incidental. The benefits appear (especially in retrospect) to have been part of a pattern.

Secondary violations are usually "self-reported". This means that the program sends the NCAA a report indicating what they have found and what corrective and/or punitive action they have taken. The NCAA usually accepts the school's findings and files the report. This is to some great extent on the honor system. Think of it like a time sheet for an hourly employee. The employer expects that you will honest in filling it out, and they don't have the resources to check every hour that you have put down. But they file the time sheets, and if there ever comes a time for them to question your honesty, they will pull the time sheets. And if they find any irregularities on them, that dishonesty will come to haunt you.

Then note that as a standard procedure, when a team appears before the NCAA's infraction committee, they have to report their recent history of secondary violations.

The Dispatch article also lays out an interesting fact that has come back to play a significant role in the way this story has evolved. OSU appears to be extremely aggressive (one might even say creative) in their use of privacy laws as a reason for not disclosing information and not complying with Freedom of Information Act requests.

But lets skip forward a year and lay out a quick, rough timeline on Act 2 of this story.

April 2010: A local attorney Chris Cicero e-mails Jim Tressel to notify him that the DOJ is investigating a local businessman who appears to have been dealing memorabilia provided by active OSU football players. Tressel does not inform the AD, compliance or the NCAA.
December 2010: The DOJ contacts Ohio State about the memorabilia, and OSU turns around and reports the issue to the NCAA. Jim Tressel does not admit to prior knowledge. The NCAA suspends the players for the first half of 2011, but allows them to play in the Sugar Bowl. After delivering a lecture on how disappointed he is in his players, Jim Tressel extracts a pledge from each of them that they will return, as a condition of letting them play in the Sugar Bowl.
Jan/Feb 2011: Ohio State finds out and then informs the NCAA of the April 2010 e-mails from Cicero.
April 2011->:
A Columbus Dispatch article claiming that a local auto dealer (Aaron Kniffin) has written up so many car sales for Ohio State players and (even out of state) family that it looks suspicious.
A report that numerous Ohio State football players have been ticketed around campus driving cars with dealer plates or cars not registered with the athletic department (as is required).
A Sports Illustrated article quoting unnamed sources, saying many many more Ohio State players were involved in the tattoo parlor's memorabilia ring than previously believed.
An ESPN report (and other follow ups) that indicating that a local memorabilia dealer and professional photographer (Dennis Talbott) has provided illegal benefits to multiple OSU football players going back at least 2 years and has given Terrell Pryor tens of thousands of dollars in cash, much of this happening after multiple people called to tip Ohio State off to potential shady dealings involving this businessman.

At this point, the gamut of opinions on what this means for Ohio State runs from "This is worse than USC and Alabama" to "No big deal. Tressel's already been fired and Terrelle Pryor is gone. What more does the NCAA want?" And the big question out there is "what about Lack of Institutional Control?" which is the RICO Act of the NCAA, the one they can hammer you with if they don't have a smoking gun on the underlying violations.

So let's try to get to those questions ... what does this mean to OSU?

First of all, the OSU fan belief that the school's compliance department is top notch is non-starter at this point. We have found out that they weren't monitoring athlete's vehicles, that they never really investigated Terrelle Pryor's loaner cars, that they never looked into Aaron Kniffin's relationships with players, that they never acted on information about Dennis Talbott, et al. 

And regarding the tattoo Parlor, Rife and the original violations, the NCAA is going to see that Ohio State had 3 opportunities to get to the bottom of this:
1. When Cicero e-mail Tressel.
2. When the DOJ contacted OSU. 
3. When e-mails from Cicero to Tressel surfaced.

And at no time did OSU's compliance department or athletic department turn up any evidence that had not already been handed to them or discover any new depth or breadth to the case beyond what was handed to them already (by Cicero, the DOJ and their own internal legal team). Meanwhile, SI, ESPN, Yahoo and the Columbus Dispatch can't do a U-turn in downtown Columbus without finding more to the story.

The second line of defense, that this is all about Jim Tressel and 5 players, is also a non-starter, as this now appears to involve the compliance office and at least one assistant coach (one of the people who was notified directly about NCAA violations involving Talbott in 2009).

A third line of defense, or deflection, is the belief of some Ohio State fans that no program could withstand the scrutiny they have been subjected to without such problems surfacing. But a widely believed to be extremely corrupt Southern Cal program was subjected to just such scrutiny, and 3 major violations were found (2 involving Reggie Bush, one involving basketball player OJ Mayo). Michigan faced a hostile local media that first spent months investigating the academics of our football program (and found no academic fraud, no eligibility problems and no NCAA violations), and then our practice habits. Combined with the scrutiny of the NCAA, they turned up evidence of practices that ran 15 minutes over and of Quality Control assistant coaches exceeding their allowed job descriptions. 

No scandals. No players suspended. No coaches forced to resign. No covers of Sports Illustrated.

So when you get past all the defenses that don't seem to defend, what you are left with is:

a) multiple different batches of violations
b) each involving multiple players
c) two cases involving figures (Talbott, Rife) who were known to people within the athletic department, who did not act
d) others of which (unregistered cars) would have been noticed by compliance if they were doing the monitoring that they are obligated, by rule, to do
e) the complete failure of Ohio State to get to the bottom of these situations, despite numerous opportunities and, apparently, a community of tipsters who try to let the coaching staff know what is going on
f) at least 2 seasons during which Ohio State used multiple star players whose eligibility they had reason to question
g) repeated "unethical conduct" (NCAA catchphrase) involving Jim Tressel.

What you don't have is

a) the involvement of coaching staff in arranging benefits
b) improper inducements to recruits
c) the involvement of high profile or heavily connected boosters

What should we expect to see?

OSU fired Tressel (or asked him to resign, politely) but this came months too late. What OSU thought they were heading towards from December to April is a mystery to most. Other than that, OSU has basically taken no corrective action to indicate to the NCAA that they understand why these situations arose or that they mean to prevent them in the future. It will be up to the NCAA to "reform" OSU, while also punishing it for past transgressions. 

So what should we expect?

First, I think the big 3 "cultural" findings will all be there. Lack of Institutional Control (for the failure to notice the pattern of behavior and failure to properly investigate when issues were raised), Failure to Monitor (for not being on top of items that are supposed to be systematically tracked, like auto registration) and failure to create an astmosophere of compliance (for Tressel's infectious see-no-evil attitude).

And on remedies

1. A show cause finding that prevents Jim Tressel from coaching again any time soon is almost a given at this point
2. A significant probationary period. 4, maybe even 5 years.
3. A significant loss of scholarships. Maybe not the 30 that USC got (though that will depend on which all accusations the NCAA believes and how wide and deep they believe the culture of violations is).
4. A multi-year post-season ban. 
5. OSU will be forced to vacate the 2010 season and quite possibly the 2009 season as well.
6. OSU may be forced to dissociate themselves from Terrelle Pryor (as well as Talbott, Rife, et al).

The question of a television ban keeps coming up. The NCAA has not ruled out television bans, and in ruling on USC specifically noted that they very seriously considered it. They also noted the logic behind a TV ban, that it is meant to counteract the gain in stature that a program received from cheating. A period of not being on TV,  of children (future fans) and high school players (future recruits)  not being able to see you play, designed counteract the years of good press that winning generates. 

But it is a very broad brush. Keeping the Ohio State - Michigan game off the air not only punishes Ohio State, but Michigan as well. So though they will discuss it again, and while it will be in their arsenal, it seems unlikely that they would impose such a sanction on Ohio State when they did not impose it on the perfect test case for it (USC).

For now, those 6 items I listed above would be the starting point.

And I'd add a few notes of clarification:
The NCAA will not go on the record and say this, but it is my firm belief that if they can prove enough facts to register the LOIC (and I am certain they can) any further allegations that they honestly believe but cannot prove will be left out of the report, but will be implicit in the harshness of the penalty handed down for LOIC. They do not have to have a paper trail on every allegation in order to say there is a culture at Ohio State that needs to be changed.

The fact that Terrelle Pryor will not testify can be helpful to or extremely harmful to Ohio State. If it means that the NCAA cannot get questions answered and runs into investigatory dead ends, that may help Ohio State. But if the accusation is made and if the accusors will speak to the NCAA, Terrelle Pryor's refusal to sit down and refute the allegations will be seen, effectively, a plea of no lo contendere. As we saw with Reggie Bush's non-compliance, they will say that if Pryor refuses to mount a defense, the preponderance of evidence shows that he is guilty.

At this point, no matter how many people refuse to speak, the NCAA has proof enough of varied enough violations that the hammer is coming down on Ohio State.

Posted: Saturday - June 11, 2011 at 03:45 PM