Jim Tressel Is The Symptom, Not The Disease

I don't mean to interrupt the national barbecuing of Jim Tressel, which I'm enjoying as much as the next guy, but there are three kinds of hypocrisy in play here, and at this point it's hard not to see Tressel's as the least of the bunch, and almost noble in its own weird way.

SI's story wants to be about the hypocrisy of a coach who wears "his Christian values on his sweater vest," and I suppose it is in a superficial sense, though it should be said that what Tressel profaned against, more than anything, was an outward image of probity and rigid moral attention that outlets like Sports Illustrated helped him cultivate. That's all pretext, though. It's really a story about the NCAA's essential hypocrisy. It's about black market economies and bad incentives and how the NCAA's quaint ideal of amateurism creates both, impelling people like Tressel and his players to the sort of commonplace deceit that the Joe Fridays in the press never tire of exposing.

This is the key passage in the Sports Illustrated story; the subject is former Buckeye Robert Rose, who copped to trading memorabilia for tattoos.

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Rose has no regrets. "I knew how much money that the school was making," he says. "I always heard about how Ohio State had the biggest Nike budget. I was struggling, my mom was struggling. ... It was just something that I had to do. I was in a hard spot. ... [Other] guys were doing it for the same reasons. The university doesn't really help. Technically we knew it was wrong, but a lot of those guys are from the inner city and we didn't have much, and we had to go on the best we could. I couldn't call home to ask my mom to help me out."

Hypocrisy is the grease that keeps the system running. Everyone knows that, even Michigan fans. Pat "enduring and justifiable taint" Forde knows that. It's how gifted young men like Rose get a cut of the vast sums of money they help generate. It's the little con that grows out of the big con — the laughable pretense that college football isn't a business.

Of course, Sports Illustrated never says that, because Sports Illustrated, like just about everyone else in the sports media, wills itself into a state of shattered innocence whenever someone wanders just the other side of the NCAA rules. I can tolerate a lot of the bullshit of college sports. I can tolerate the college coaches who make paper hats out of the NCAA bylaws. I can tolerate the NCAA itself, knowing that one day soon the whole edifice will come tumbling down. What I can't tolerate is the passel of excellent journalists who understand all the cockeyed incentives of big-time college sports, who know precisely where the big con lies, and who nonetheless write story after story after story after story in which they mistake the symptoms for the contagion.

All of these reporters — Dan Wetzel and the Yahoo! dudes, George Dohrmann, et al — do more and better journalism before lunch than I will do in a lifetime. But their periodic spasms of lace-hanky-waving faux-shock at NCAA scofflaws do nothing but legitimize the very authority they're purporting to reform. These rules are worth enforcing, their stories argue. And in a few months' time, another rule will get broken, and Yahoo! or SI will have another Big Story, and another Jim Tressel will come and go, and we'll realize that nothing has changed except that some very smart reporters have turned themselves once again into mall cops for the NCAA.

SI investigation reveals eight-year pattern of violations under Tressel [Sports Illustrated]