Myth Busting The NCAA’s Report On Ohio State

I’ll be the first to admit that when all of the allegations against Ohio State’s football program started leaking earlier this year, I was as guilty as anyone of a quick, knee-jerk reaction.

When Jim Tressel went down like a disgraced Senator (see what I did there?), and Terrelle Pryor was accused of trying to autograph and sell anything that wasn’t bolted to the ground, I thought for sure that the Ohio State football dominance was over. So long Big Ten titles. See ya, regular BCS bowl game appearances. Hello major NCAA investigation. The way I saw it, all you had to do was take USC’s punishment from last summer, multiply it by 1.5, and that’s what Ohio State would end up with. Bowl bans, scholarship losses, a major overhaul of the entire Athletics Department. Anything and everything. You name it.

Which is why when I read the report on the findings from an NCAA investigation over the weekend, I was absolutely stunned.

Not only did it not appear that Ohio State wasn’t going to get hit with major sanctions, quite frankly, it doesn’t appear they should be. If anything, Ohio State was running an Athletics Department, gulp, about as efficiently as you can.

Crazy, right? Well go ahead and read the report.

In it, we find a program that not only tried to do things the right way, but if anything, went above and beyond protocol to try and abide by the rules. We find a school which hammered home the ramifications of wrongdoing like an elementary school teacher lecturing her class before a field trip. The report also details the life of a coach that appeared to be some combination of scared, naïve and ignorant, someone who was undoubtedly concerned about his players, but not entirely sure how to handle them.

Granted, with that said, I understand most of you probably didn’t have time to read the report, and most don’t have the time now. Therefore, I’ll go ahead and give you the nitty-gritty details here, so we can figure out what happened, and what it means going forward.

It’s time to do some Ohio State myth-busting.


Myth No. 1: The Ohio State Case Is One Of The Greatest Displays Of Over Exuberant Rule-Breaking We’ve Ever Seen


Understand that when all of the allegations against the Buckeyes started this spring, I consumed them like a middle-aged woman watching Ellen on a weekday afternoon. I repeatedly Googled Terrelle Pryor’s name like a teenage guy would Jessica Alba’s. I refreshed, craving the latest little nugget of news. Hell, I basically sabotaged my Memorial Day at the beach, trying to figure out what was going to come from George Dohrmann’s Sports Illustrated report.

And you know what? Sadly, it was all for nothing.

The reason being, that according to their report, the NCAA didn’t find out anything that we didn’t know back in February. Essentially, some players got a hook-up on some free tattoos, and Jim Tressel knew about it all the way back in April 2010. That’s it. The NCAA found nothing on Terrelle Pryor trading autographed goods for cash, and nothing about any widespread, deep seated corruption that dated back a decade. Just a few dudes who spent the last few years receiving free tatts, and a coach that knew about it.

With that said, is that alone bad? Of course it is. According to the report, there were eight guys that got some kind of hook-up, for stuff ranging from $150 to $14,200. Some NCAA sanctions are obviously coming for the school, and the guilty parties have all either been suspended, or you’d have to assume no longer with the school (either graduated, or in the case of Pryor, asked to leave).

At the same time, a lot of stuff we thought we knew doesn’t appear to hold up. All those rumblings about Pryor receiving $40,000 for autographed goods, as well as the tattoo hookup taking place at multiple shops for multiple years? It just isn’t true. At least not according to the report. Instead the report indicates the tattoo hook-up started as recently as 2008, when Fine Line Ink owner Edward Rife became friends with a few players. It didn’t start in 2002, like had previously been reported.

Which in a way, brings me to a bigger fundamental problem, both with the way that we as fans consume our information, as well as the people that report it. And that’s, that we really should do a better job of holding our reporters accountable. Or at the very least, taking some of what they say with a grain of salt.

What do I mean?

Well, for starters, there was that whole story that ran on ESPN about Pryor autographing just about anything he could get his hands on for cash. I’m not saying it didn’t happen, since Pryor definitely left the school under some very suspicious circumstances. And as I’ve mentioned before, I found it very bizarre that on his “Camp Gruden” special Pryor repeatedly apologized to Ohio State fans, without saying what exactly he was apologizing for.

Still, while I think he might have done it, the NCAA was unable to prove that he actually did. Which again, probably says quite a bit about me as the fan here.

It also says quite a bit that I took to heart a story that involved one person’s account of what happened, with that person not even willing to show his face on camera. Was that one “source,” telling the truth and was afraid of repercussions? It’s definitely a possibility. Or does he simply have a vendetta and didn’t want it to be acknowledged? You could make the case of either, couldn’t you? Yet, I took the report as straight fact. And I shouldn’t have done that.

It’s similar with the Sports Illustrated report.

Understand I’m not blaming Dohrmann for what happened. I want to make it clear that Dohrmann is better at his job than I will ever be at anything I do. I sincerely mean that. And as he mentioned on Twitter Friday, the NCAA had the opportunity to interview one of his sources, but refused to for confidentiality reasons. Blame them in that case, not him.

At the same time, a lot of the information that he reported seems to have been debunked. Remember when Sports Illustrated reported that the free tattoos had been going at multiple locations for a decade? The NCAA disagrees; they said it’s been going on since 2008 and that’s it. Remember when Sports Illustrated said Pryor used to walk into the equipment room and took whatever he wanted? According to the NCAA’s findings, Ohio State had an extensive logging system for anyone who wanted to take big items (helmets, shoulder pads etc.) out of the equipment room. And for a lot of people who wanted those items, they had to pay for them, in compliance with NCAA rules.

That’s all in direct conflict with what’s been previously reported.

(Random side note: It’s for reasons like this, that I have begun to appreciate the reporting of Dan Wetzel, Charles Robinson and the Yahoo guys more and more by the day.

Go ahead and look at their track record. Those guys don’t dabble in the grey area, and don’t deal with unnamed sources. They get people on the record. Everything is backed up by receipts, phone logs and e-mail chains. Name an investigation, and it’s all the same: Willie Lyles at Oregon. Lloyd Lake at USC. Tom Moore at UConn. On the record. On the record. On the record.

Again, that’s not to take anything away from anyone else. It gives an especially strong appreciation to what those guys do though.)

Myth No. 2: Someone Besides Jim Tressel Should’ve Known About What Was Happening

Again, just like a lot of people, I jumped out to all sorts of assumptions similar to this one. Mainly, I wanted to know how this all could’ve been kept in the dark? Didn’t Tressel’s assistants know? The Athletic Director? Compliance? Come on! Someone had to know!!!

The answer to all those questions is that it’s just not that simple.

According to the NCAA findings, when Columbus lawyer Chris Cicero first contacted Tressel about Rife, the free tattoos and the Ohio State players involved, the coach told a grand total of three people about what he’d heard. Those people were two redacted players (almost assuredly Terrelle Pryor and DeVier Posey) and a Jeannette, Pennsylvania lawyer named Ted Sarniak. Sarniak of course was Pryor’s mentor from home, who according to Tressel, talked to TPeezy daily. That’s it. It was those three, and those three only who found out.

Amongst the people that Tressel didn’t tell when he got the e-mails included, Ohio State AD Gene Smith, the compliance department, any of his assistant coaches, any other players, or even his own wife. No seriously, he claims he didn’t tell her either.

So the first, fundamental question is, “Why didn’t Tressel tell anyone?” Well, if you believe him, what he said, actually makes sense.

Essentially, the reason that Tressel didn’t talk was because when Cicero came to him with the information, it was because Rife had just been busted in a federal investigation for drug trafficking. One, he didn’t want Cicero to get in trouble for giving him information, and two, it was a lot bigger than tattoos. According to Tressel’s testimony to the NCAA, he was more worried about his kids. Were they drug dealers? Drug users? Middle men?

Here are some direct quotes from Tressel’s conversation with NCAA investigators:

“The worst-case scenario, they’re going to prison with Eddie Rife. Maybe they’re selling drugs. Maybe they’re using drugs. I guess best-case scenario, they’re selling memorabilia and we’ll take care of that. They know better than that.” And as he said, when a federal investigation is involved, it’s much bigger than an NCAA issue at that point”

He then added that he was worried about the player’s safety, being involved with a known drug trafficker:

“I’ve also had a player murdered. I have a player incarcerated. I have had a couple guys get sucked into the drug culture. I’ve had a player who served a ten-year suspension [sic] for obstruction of justice, you know? And those things, just like games, you remember the terrelle_pryorbad play in the game that cost you the game. You don’t remember the 77 good plays,” 

And then, finally as he explained, again, this was a federal investigation. It went well beyond a simple NCAA ruling:

“’Cause to me, it wasn’t simply an NCAA rule. And I’m not belittling the importance of an NCAA rule. But it was way beyond an NCAA rule. I mean, it was a security issue. It was a federal criminal issue. It was a narcotics issue. You know, where do you turn?”

Of course that still doesn’t answer the fundamental question of should Ohio State have known. To which I ask, how could they?

Clearly for his own reasons (whether you believe them or not), Tressel went out of his way to keep this all secret. Just about the only way Ohio State could’ve had any idea, is if they did a detailed review of all his e-mails. Yes they should’ve been more proactive, but remember, he only traded two or three e-mails with his tipster, Cicero. It wasn’t a long, drawn out communication process.

Beyond that, at what point is a school trying to be compliant with NCAA rules (which we’ll get to in a minute) and at what point are they simply micro-managing? Remember, Ohio State has over 30 varsity sports, and those 30 varsity sports not only have a head coach, but also a litany of assistants. On top of all their other responsibilities, when does “checking every single e-mail,” become over the top burdensome and ridiculous for the compliance department?

Granted that Tressel was the highest profile coach they had, so the department probably should’ve been more watchful over him. But what does “more watchful” even mean? Check all his e-mails? Only some? Random audits? What about his assistants?

I don’t know.

However, this also brings me to my next point…

Myth No. 3: Ohio State Should’ve Done More!

Umm, no they shouldn’t have. Quite frankly, I’m not sure they could have. Simply put, anyone who is still saying that Ohio State “could’ve or should’ve done more,” is either an idiot, or didn’t read the report. In some cases both (No offense).

Because if you did read the report, you’ll understand that this wasn’t some rogue program that had their head in the sand. Instead, it was one that not only followed protocol, but went way beyond it, and tried just about everything it could educate it’s players and coaches on what was acceptable, and what wasn’t.

Understand, that’s not my opinion. That’s fact. At least according to the NCAA report.

Amongst the things that they found, included that at least twice annually, the school met with the football program- players and coaches- about what was acceptable behavior, and what was not tolerated by NCAA rules.

Since I can’t say it better than the NCAA report did, here’s a direct quote from the report:

The institution demonstrated that each fall and spring during the time of the violations, it provided education to football student-athletes and staff, regarding extra benefits and preferential treatment.

Ok, not bad. Beyond that, it continues to say that the school talked specifically about selling rewards they got as being part of the team:

Regarding the sale of memorabilia, the institution provided the football staff with rules education specific to the sale of institutionally issued athletics awards each year starting in 2007.

Pretty good, right? Well how about a separate meeting before bowl games just to hammer the point home? Again, this is from the NCAA’s own investigation

The institution concluded additional education sessions for football student-athletes prior to each bowl game in which extra benefits were addressed, and the young men were told that it was impermissible to sell gifts received for participation in bowl games.

One more quote from the NCAA’s report, just to prove my point.

In November 2009, the institution increased its education to football student athletes regarding institutionally issued awards, apparel and equipment. Specifically the institution informed football student-athletes that it was impermissible to sell those items. The institution indicated that the increase in education was at least partially prompted by the specialty “throwback,” uniforms the team wore in its game against the University of Michigan.

So now let me ask you: Is this the renegade, out of control program that you pictured in your head a month, or maybe even a week ago? Or one with a few dumb players and an even dumber coach, who were warned time and time again about consequences for rule breaking and went forward and did it anyway?

For those who are ready to throw the book at Ohio State, what else were they supposed to do?

Myth No. 4: Who Cares, The NCAA Still Needs To Make An Example Out Of Ohio State

This one really pisses me off. Especially since I’ve seen a couple of well-respected reporters take this stance. Please stop.

Look, it’s not the NCAA’s job to make an example out of anyone. The NCAA’s job is to try and figure out right from wrong, investigate the rule breakers, and punish them accordingly. Not make the rules as they go, and punish as fans or the media sees fit. It’s also not their job to believe every piece of crap report that gets thrown out as “fact.” As NCAA President Mark Emmert has said before, the NCAA punishes based on “What we can prove, not what we read.”

And what the NCAA proved in their report is again, what we already knew: A handful of players received improper benefits, from a sketchy drug trafficker. Those players have either been suspended for five games, or are no longer with the program. The coach has been fired. And based on the way the department has acted so far, I assume that if anyone else comes up as guilty, the school with act swiftly with them as well. So with that said, what exactly is there to “make an example of?” Ohio State did an investigation, found some stuff, and the guilty were punished accordingly. What more do you want?

Beyond that, a lot of people are upset that it appears that Ohio State won’t be hit with the two worst sanctions a program can get, “Lack of Institutional Control,” and “Failure to Monitor.” To which I say, again, read the reports and understand them.

Why? Well, let’s start with Lack of Institutional Control, since that’s the worst punishment. It’s also what USC got hit with, and the Trojans case is the one most closely being compared to Ohio State’s. Which it shouldn’t be.

The reason being this: Remember that in the case of USC, it really was a “lack of institutional control.” It wasn’t one player, or even one team that was a problem, but the whole institituion. Don’t forget that; things ran deeper than just Reggie Bush and the football program. Remember that the compliance staff was woefully understaffed. The school knowingly set Bush up with a “summer internship,” with a sports agency (No, for real, that actually happened). And it went beyond the football program. USC basketball coach Tim Floyd got caught paying cash to one of O.J. Mayo’s handlers. That folks, is lack of institutional control. Not what happened at Ohio State.

What about Failure to Monitor? Well, given that all the measures seemed to be in place (compliance meetings, player logs, and everything else), it seems like the school tried to do their best to monitor. Only one guy (Tressel), didn’t exactly make it easy for them to do so.

Just to be safe, let’s look at something straight from the NCAA, and right off the Pac-10’s website. It’s in regard to LOIC punishment, but something that seems to be very applicable for what happened at Ohio State.

An institution cannot be expected to control the actions of every individual who is in some way connected with its athletics program. The deliberate or inadvertent violation of a rule by an individual who is not in charge of compliance with rules that are violated will not be considered to be due to a lack of institutional control:

• if adequate compliance measures exist;

• if they are appropriately conveyed to those who need to be aware of them;

• if they are monitored to ensure that such measures are being followed;

To me, it seems like this little excerpt is a carbon copy of what was used in determining what happened at Ohio State. Again, a school can’t be expected to control the actions of every individual, and the school won’t be punished, as long as certain parameters were in place. Like they were at Ohio State.

Myth No. 5: Still, I Don’t Care What The Rule Book Says, Something Isn’t Right. Punish Ohio State!!

Please, just stop.

I’ve got a couple of additional thoughts on this, and they involve why I don’t believe that Ohio State should get crushed (ie: bowl bans, major scholarship reductions) by the NCAA.

The first is simple. Whenever the NCAA does one of these investigations, don’t we as fans always piss and moan, “Why are the current players the ones who are getting screwed, when someone else is the one who committed the violations?” I know that I say that all the time, and I’m sure you do too. Ultimately, isn’t it always someone who didn’t do the crime, stuck doing the time?

Well again, at Ohio State, the culprits have been punished up front. Tressel has been fired. Pryor has been banished to Camp Gruden. The other players are suspended for five games. Assuming nothing else comes out (which obviously isn’t out of the question), why are we going to punish everyone else beyond what’s happened? For what? To prove a point? Isn’t that everything that we always hate about these investigations?

The second thing is this: The NCAA has proven that time and again their punishments are based much more on what systems were in place to stop the rule breaking, and what actions have been taken to make sure they never happen again. Not how bad the actual crimes are themselves. Their approach is that you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink. In other words, you can teach a football coach and his players the rules and hammer them home. There’s no guarantee they’ll listen.

And to go back to USC, that, more than anything is why they got in big trouble. Yes what Reggie Bush did was bad, really bad. Same with O.J. Mayo. At the same time, the school was to blame too. They didn’t do a good enough job of trying to hold themselves accountable early on (Lack of compliance) and even after the investigation started, dragged their feet. Hell, the coach who was implicated for allegedly knowing about Bush’s transgressions (Todd McNair, which is questionable by the way), wasn’t fired until after the investigation was completed and the sanctions took effect. Tressel resigned way, way, WAY before that. As for the rest of compliance, the staff was in place. Even if the players and coach didn’t listen.

Look, in the end, maybe I’m naïve, and to a degree, I know I am. At the same time, I’m not one of these people who believes the NCAA picks and choose their punishments randomly, as much as they act within the parameters of the twisted, convoluted world they live in. Basically, blame the system, not those who enforce it.

Well in the case of Ohio State, if you believe the NCAA’s findings, then you’ve got a situation where the school tried to play things by the book, and the coach and a few knucklehead players wouldn’t let them. Is that a situation where the whole ship should sink? I think not (And granted, I feel the same way about USC. The kids there now, were hit way too hard).

Simply put, Ohio State did the best they could throughout most of this investigation. Yes, they could’ve acted quicker with Tressel, but they still got rid of him. And they punished all the other guilty parties accordingly.

Now, they should be allowed to move on. With sanctions yes, but not by having their program stripped to bare bones.

Nobody should be trying to make an example of out Ohio State’s football program.

Quite the opposite.

An example should be made of how the Athletics Department handled a really bad situation.

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About Aaron Torres

Aaron Torres works for Fox Sports, and was previously a best-selling author of the book 'The Unlikeliest Champion.' He currently uses Aaron Torres Sports to occasionally weigh-in on the biggest stories from around sports. He has previously done work for such outlets as Sports Illustrated, SB Nation and Slam Magazine.