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Which school went further off the rails with its disregard for NCAA rules?
Two programs, one with a middling college football tradition and one comfortably nested among college football's elite, currently face the heavy hammer of the NCAA's compliance police. Both have removed personnel from their ranks, including the head coaches, and claimed that those moves have exorcised the demons haunting their offices.
But who deserves a greater dose of punishment in the NCAA's kangaroo court, North Carolina or Ohio State? So much depends on your interpretation of whether the NCAA's rules are even fair to begin with.
The crux of the matter at Ohio State is based on the widespread Columbus custom of trading Buckeye sports memorabilia and tickets for benefits ranging from tattoos to cars. Sports Illustrated alleged that players had also traded swag for marijuana, but the NCAA, due to its lack of subpoena power, was unable to fully investigate those allegations.
Meanwhile, coach Jim Tressel's e-mail trail indicates that he knew about the issues over a year prior to the kickoff of the investigation, and his preferred plan of action may have been sticking his fingers in his ears, humming "la-la-la," and searching for any shred of plausible deniability.
If we want to judge the Buckeyes' case by the company the players were keeping, there are certainly grounds for suspicion and reprisal from the NCAA. Edward Rife, owner of Fine Line Ink in Columbus, has pled guilty to drug trafficking and money laundering. He's not exactly the kind of guy a university wants having extensive connections to its football program. For the sake of OSU's own image, they needed to cut him off with haste, and perhaps his jail time will accomplish that purpose.
Rife was also an avid collector of Buckeye memorabilia, and the players who provided the items he craved were allegedly compensated for them in a variety of ways. Still, one point gnaws at me and makes me question the NCAA's true allegiance to student-athletes.
That point is this: why is a university being attacked for players selling their own possessions? Rings, helmets, assorted awards, they're all wonderful items for a player to point to later in life and reminisce about his past achievements.
Or, the players can act like typical 18-to-22-year-old guys and hock their stuff for some cash to go clubbing with. People sell cars, televisions, musical instruments, all sorts of items that may or may not have any sentimental value when they find themselves in dire financial straits. I'm still smarting from selling my once-vast CD collection for 10 cents on the dollar after bouncing a car payment back in 1998. Stuff happens.
The NCAA demanding a pound of flesh from a university because its players sold items given out as awards makes as much sense as locking a parent in jail because their kid went to school, traded a baseball card for a baseball bat, and beat someone with the bat. Coaches and administrators are fond of saying that they can't monitor their players' every move, and this is a prime example.
If selling this sort of memorabilia is going to be a "crime," why not make it a capital-C crime? Postpone the giving of awards until some homecoming five years down the line, so championship rings and other such valuables aren't left dependent on the whims of a teenager wondering how he's going to afford to take a coed to a nice restaurant.
Insist on a player signing waivers that put him at risk of prosecution if he sells this particular piece of property, barring unforeseen circumstances as deemed permissible by the school. Essentially, those awards would be rented. If the players don't want to participate under those conditions, then so be it. They get no championship rings to show to their kids and grandkids.
Ohio State's case is full of violations that should not be violations. Now, should they skate? Absolutely not, but the shrapnel from this explosion needs to travel a bit further up the food chain than half of the starting offense.
Athletic director Gene Smith did everything but physically slap a hand over Jim Tressel's mouth at the March press conference where the case was blown open. He was making sure that Tressel admitted nothing that would land the university in further hot water, full disclosure be damned. Any sanctions that would end up impacting the university should tail him for the remainder of his career, just as they will Jim Tressel.
It's unknown whether Smith knew something and when he knew it, but he knew it at that press conference, and he made certain that Tressel didn't slit his own throat when there was a chance that OSU could make the whole thing disappear.
The worst words a university can hear from the NCAA are "failure to monitor." In this case, Ohio State was certainly monitoring. However, "failure to report" should be even more damning. The NCAA settling for Tressel's head on a platter and some Liquid Paper over a line in the proverbial record book is shameful. If these particular violations are going to be considered violations, the penalties need to pack some teeth or the rules need to be removed.
Let's compare this with North Carolina. The Tar Heels' allegations ranged from academic cheating to payment of players' parking tickets to employing an assistant coach who was on an agent's payroll. Nearly all of these should rate a bowl ban, loss of scholarships, a few weeks at Guantanamo, something. Something more than the vacated games that Ohio State levied against itself, the "let's pretend that season didn't happen" defense. Until the Men in Black start walking around and neuralyzing everyone, this defense needs to go away faster than "Hey, you wouldn't hit a guy with glasses, would ya?"
UNC employed a tutor who spent her own money to make players' parking tickets go away, bought a plane ticket for one, and gave away tutoring sessions at no charge to players or school.
And a word about those parking tickets, if I may. 395 tickets totaling more than $13,000? Are you kidding? We all know that faculty and staff get all the good parking spots, but when it takes a lower-class annual salary to make the tickets go away, the coaching staff may want to boot everyone's cars themselves and tell them to take the bus.
Assistant coach John Blake took over $31,000 from agent Gary Wichard's Pro Tect Management, primarily for steering players to said agency. Pro Tect and other agencies, along with assorted Tar Heel alumni, were alleged to be handing money directly to players.
On top of all of it, defensive tackle Marvin Austin lit the fuse by extensively tweeting about the parties that he was attending in Miami, parties thrown by sports management firms. All of this sounds like the treatment for a sequel to Blue Chips.
The largest takeaway that most coaches were left with was summed up by Alabama's Nick Saban, who memorably called agents "pimps" at an early-season press conference last year. Agents are evil, Twitter is a tool of the devil, and our players are as pure as the driven snow.
College football players have mostly been told how awesome they are since they were 12 or 13. The typical teenage air of invincibility is heightened tenfold with athletes. As Annie Savoy told us at the end of Bull Durham, "The world was made for those who aren't cursed with self-awareness."
When you and I were teenagers, life was all about having fun at all times and at all costs. If things like school work could be avoided, they often were. Are agents exploiting this basic aspect of human nature? Absolutely. Are the players wide-eyed innocents with no culpability to any of it? Not one bit.
The university let in a lot of people with bad intentions, so it's no surprise that those dreaded words "failure to monitor" are being heard in the Chapel Hill affair. UNC's efforts to keep the agents barking outside the door must have been truly pitiful, and for that they will pay.
The sheer depth and breadth of the North Carolina violations mean that the Tar Heels are going to get hit a lot harder than the Buckeyes, and it's not just because Ohio State is Ohio State and ESPN loves them. All of the things of which North Carolina's program has been accused are all of the things that are reputed to be the deepest, darkest evils possible in college football. Academic fraud and agents handing over cash do and should trump players selling helmets and pants.
Only time will tell us exactly how heavy the damage will be to both programs. Ohio State's date with the NCAA is scheduled for August 12, and North Carolina's is October 28. Those who would like to see some reform in college football have to hope that the punishments are more the size of Gulliver and less the size of Gachnar.
--Scott Henry (@4QuartersRadio)