It's a college-football miracle!
The game's holiest program—the undefeated and unimpeachable Notre Dame—is sitting atop the Bowl Championship Series standings. Even more miraculous: For once, the endlessly maligned BCS system seems to have worked. This weekend, Alabama and Georgia, both 11-1, will play for the Southeastern Conference championship, with the winner advancing to take on the Fighting Irish in the BCS title game.
There's just one problem with this narrative: Ohio State.
Last weekend, the Buckeyes defeated their archrivals, the Michigan Wolverines, to cap a perfect 12-0 season. "Ohio State can go and play with anybody in America," coach Urban Meyer said after the game.
Maybe, but we'll never know. The Buckeyes aren't allowed to play in any postseason bowl games because of some violations of National Collegiate Athletic Association rules. This inconvenient fact may leave an asterisk next to the Buckeyes' unblemished 2012 season. But it's going to leave a much bigger one next to the entire college football season itself.
Think about it. An undefeated team from a major conference isn't even in the running for the national championship. That the Buckeyes weren't eligible for bowl games from the first snap of the year doesn't change the reality that they played out their schedule and never lost. Basically, the team's 12-0 season counts for nothing.
Why hasn't this generated more outrage? After all, college football fans love to vent about the BCS system and its reliance on unaccountable outsiders—Harris pollsters, coaches and the BCS mainframe—to determine who gets to play in the national championship game. The only difference here is that the unaccountable outsider is the NCAA.
The easy answer is that the Buckeyes had it coming. They broke the rules, and the organization charged with enforcement punished them accordingly. The team's one-year suspension from bowl games was issued a year ago after five players were discovered to have been trading Ohio State gear for cash and discounted tattoos from 2008 to 2010.
For the sake of argument, let's agree that this sort of behavior shouldn't be tolerated, that college athletes—who aren't paid and aren't guaranteed anything, including their athletic scholarships, which they can lose if they underperform or get hurt—shouldn't be permitted to make a few thousand dollars here and there selling some of their own possessions.
OK, but not a single one of those athletes was a member of this year's team. For that matter, Jim Tressel, the coach who presided over the Buckeyes during that period, is gone, too.
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What's more, the punishment itself was unprecedented for this type of infraction, which the NCAA's rulebook—a 400-page document that makes the Federal Register seem like light reading—classifies as a "Failure to Monitor." Before Ohio State, the last big-time program to be slapped with the "Failure to Monitor" charge, in February 2011, was the University of Connecticut basketball program. It wasn't excluded from the postseason tournament.
Timing is everything, though. Ohio State's penalty came down in the midst of the Penn State child sex-abuse scandal, when the NCAA was eager to show that its rules were very, very important and it was very, very serious about enforcing them. Or, as Ohio State President Gordon Gee put it to me more diplomatically: "We were caught in a changing environment."
So maybe the Buckeyes didn't necessarily have it coming. Maybe a better explanation for the lack of outrage over the unceremonious conclusion to Ohio State's perfect season is that we've gotten so used to living in the upside-down world of the NCAA that we've stopped noticing that it's upside down.
Not even Gee seemed the least bit bothered by his school's predicament. Come January, he said, he will be sitting on a couch somewhere, cheering on fellow members of the Big Ten Conference.
"In the end, it's about getting an education. We are not professionals," he said. "I would shut down our football program before we professionalized intercollegiate sports."
The amateur football program Gee was referring to generated about $50 million in revenue last year. Its current head coach, Meyer, earns an annual salary and bonus totaling $4 million. Gee might like to think of his football players as students first, but it's not clear they would agree. As one player, Cardale Jones, tweeted in October (and was suspended for a game for doing so): "Why should we have to go to class if we came here to play FOOTBALL, we ain't come to play SCHOOL classes are pointless."
The irony is that for Gee and others who cling stubbornly to the myth of the student-athlete, this year's Ohio State team is a model not just for its perfect record. With no hope of a national championship, the Buckeyes saw excellence as its own reward—and achieved it. What better example of pure sportsmanship could there be?
Next year, Ohio State will once again be jockeying for a high-profile bowl berth and all the cash that flows from it. This year's team, by contrast, will stand forever as the one that played not for money but for pride.
"If the season can be measured by character, then we have already won the national championship," Gee told me. In other words, only when banished from the system was Ohio State able to stand for the principles the system claims to uphold.
That's the upside-down world of the NCAA for you.
Jonathan Mahler is a sports columnist for Bloomberg View. A long-time contributor to The New York Times Magazine, he is the author of the best-selling Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning, The Challenge, and Death Comes to Happy Valley. He's @jonathanmahler on Twitter.