Friday, April 29, 2011

Sports Q&A: Liar, Liar, Sweater Vest on Fire

By Jeffrey Boswell

The NCAA sent Ohio State a "notice of allegations" accusing head football coach Jim Tressel of withholding information and lying in order to keep players on the field, although he knew they had accepted improper benefits from the owner of a tattoo parlor. Is this the beginning of the end for the Buckeyes' successful coach?

It can never be a good sign when a university is presented with an NCAA report detailing numerous potential violations. It's an even worse sign when those violations appear in conjunction with the words "owner of a tattoo parlor." Now, ironically, it seems that the most unsavory character in this mess is not the tattoo parlor owner, Eddie Rife, but Tressel himself. And, like tattoos, these allegations won't go away.

In their report, the NCAA accused Tressel of failing to "deport himself ... [with] honesty and integrity." Obviously, the NCAA chose its wording very carefully, and cleverly. Is the phrase "deport himself" a not-to-subtle plea for Tressel to resign? And "honesty and integrity?" Tressel was probably pleased to see those words mentioned along with his own name. But in his rose-colored view of the situation, he refuses to see the "without" or "lacking" that, as we've all become accustomed to with Tressel, appear before "honesty and integrity."

Tressel found out in April of 2010, in an e-mail from lawyer and former Buckeye walk-on Christopher Cicero, that a federal raid on Rife's house turned up a wealth of Ohio State memorabilia, including autographed jerseys, cleats, pants, and helmets, not to mention a signed copy of Woody Hayes' autobiography, "Smack Talk." Okay, there was no Hayes book found, but you can best believe if this would have happened under Hayes' watch, somebody would have been punched, whether a tattoo parlor owner, nosy investigator, or a Clemson player.

Anyway, it's probably not the first time a raid on a tattoo parlor owner's house turned up worthless junk, but in this case, it was junk useful in an NCAA investigation. Tressel, of course, knew this was trouble, yet he failed to notify athletic director Gene Smith, OSU president Gordon Gee, the NCAA compliance department, or anyone in the school's legal department. Instead, the cover-up began.

It would have been one thing had someone stumbled upon Rife's stash and informed Tressel of the memorabilia. A little dishonesty in this situation would have been understood. College athletics are built on white lies. You've heard of recruiting pitches, right? A stern reprimanded to his players, and a nifty payoff to Rife, sweetened with some hush money, and Tressel would have had the problem solved. It's not so simple when the memorabilia is discovered in a federal raid. The feds don't raid a house because they suspect a signed Terrelle Pryor jersey is lurking inside. No, it takes much more, like the suspicion of drugs, guns, and/or prostitution, all of which can often be found in or near the houses of most tattoo parlor owners.

Instead, Tressel forwarded Cicero's e-mail to Ted Sarniak, a businessman and friend and mentor to Pryor, which, by association, makes Sarniak's role as "businessman" seem a bit shady. Over the course of a few months, Tressel had numerous email and phone conversations with Cicero and Sarniak, and while only they know exactly what words were spoken, you can best believe that coming clean to the school or the NCAA was not discussed. Funny thing is, Cicero and Sarniak may be the only two people to which Tressel has spoken the truth.

Then, in September 2010, Tressel signed and dated an Ohio State compliance form indicating that he was not aware of any NCAA violations. A signed compliance form? Apparently, that's not worth much to Tressel, but I bet it would serve as quite a bargaining chip in a tattoo parlor. Reportedly, Tressel stopped using mirrors after submitting this document. In any case, it was another opportunity for Tressel to come clean, and another that he passed on.

And this point, there was no turning back for Tressel.

Then, in December, the bottom started to fall out when the U.S. Attorney told OSU that it had uncovered the memorabilia. Surely, an incredulous Tressel replied "What memorabilia?" to this development. Of course, it's easy to "play dumb" when you've "been dumb." After a cursory, Barney Fife-thorough investigation of the matter, the university discovered the players' connection to Rife, but found nothing on Tressel. Hmmm. Something is rotten in Columbus, and they could even smell it in Denmark.

The five players involved were suspended for five games, starting with the 2011 season opener, but were allowed to play in the Buckeyes next game, the Sugar Bowl against Arkansas. Ohio State, with a full complement of players, won that game 31-26, and to celebrate, some players curiously slapped wrists instead of slapping hands. That's what the Ohio State football program has become — even when they are handing out punishment, it seems suspicious.

Tressel looked to be in the clear. That is, until OSU decided to appeal the players' suspensions. That's when, remarkably, and as the result of what was likely the easiest NCAA investigation in history, the communications between Tressel, Cicero, and Sarniak were found. Tressel was given a five-game suspension and fined $250,000, or roughly $10,000 for every lie and $5,000 for every half-truth.

Where does this leave Tressel? Firmly in the NCAA's doghouse and owner of a tarnished legacy. Should he retire? Yes, but not until he has a clear understanding of the difference between "volition" and "violation." There is really nothing Tressel can say, short of "I resign," that would right his many wrongs. Just as his sweater vest has no arms, his excuses and explanations have no legs.

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