Tressel Suspended: What To Believe?

While this may present opposing views to Joe’s initial thoughts, it’s not my intent to serve as a “Wow, were you wrong” guy here. The events of the past few days have galvanized parts of Buckeye Nation and have polarized other parts.

And I’m not sure where I fall, to be honest.

First, the stuff that I think we all agree on. Drawing on our earlier thoughts about this situation:

  • Jim Tressel chose to disregard an NCAA regulation, and should be held accountable for that decision.
  • The Ohio State University Athletic Department has responded swiftly; we are impressed with the way that this has been addressed in a timely manner that has been as transparent as appropriate.
  • Because this is receiving a ton of media coverage and is a significant issue, it would be easy to conclude that this situation is indicative of a larger problem in the football program or the athletic department. We think that this conclusion is unfounded and unwise. Based on the University’s response thus far, it is more logical to believe that they take these issues seriously and seek to respond as is required.
  • We are disappointed that this has happened, and are hopeful that this will be a learning moment for everyone involved.

Terry Gilliam- AP Photo

Let me say a few things about point number two. There were several moments during today’s press conference that “talked me off the edge”, as it were, but the overarching strength of my convictions that this is not a systemic issue is based on the fact that it was discovered by the University. Yesterday, I was less than happy that outside investigators were stirring up dirt on the program that I follow; my relief that the issue was being dealt with internally has changed that discomfort to… well… lesser discomfort.  Ohio State may be responsible for a number of things, but backing away from their issues should not be counted among them. Again, this issue came to light when the University was doing a self audit– not because someone turned them in or because it made the media, but because they recognized that something was wrong and sought to address it. Granted, there’s a lot of folks who wished that recognition could have come a lot earlier, but given what we’ve seen in college athletics over the past year it’s refreshing to see the University respond in a way that (hopefully) teaches about the importance of responsibility.

I was also feeling relatively positive about the decision making process involved here. It’s one thing to make a poor decision, and another to make a bad decision. The first involves faulty reasoning (road to hell is paved with good intentions, and all that), while the second is to know what to do and choose not to do it. As the conference went on, I could understand why Coach Tressel chose not to report this issue to compliance to avoid impacting an investigation and/or his players. It’s this mindset that Joe brings to the table- certainly did make sense when Coach and AD Smith were addressing it.

And then, I read the emails in question. That’s where things get problematic for me.

If you haven’t already, you should go take a look at the three emails, which were provided to the media that covered the event today, and were released by the University. They’ve been redacted, but the points within are pretty clear (at least to me). If you want a quick glimpse, as well as a precursor to what the media talking points will be for the next year or so (and longer than that for fans of other programs), take a quick wander over to Deadspin. There, they juxtapose the text with Tressel’s words from the press conference… and it ain’t pretty.

No, in looking at the emails in question it seems that the issue addressed had less to do with “federal narcotics investigation” and more to do with an outside person tipping Coach Tressel off regarding extremely questionable behavior of some of his athletes.  While it’s unclear if the initial email is referring to players currently with the team, that would be a safe assessment from the rest of the correspondence.

The second email (two parts from the outside source and one comment from Coach Tressel) corroborates what several players said in December; that this type of thing had been occurring for a while (specifically mentions a National Championship ring and other items that could not solely belong to the six student athletes involved in the initial investigation) and that there were current members of the team involved (due to the warnings for redacted persons not to call the person under investigation). It is in these emails that the word “confidential” first appears, and it seems to be more about the author protecting his identity (and perhaps his professional status, if he’s revealing privileged information) rather than maintaining an attempt to not impact a larger investigation.

The third string of emails (initial one from Coach Tressel, response, Tressel’s reply) is the most concerning to me. In it, Tressel reaches out to see if there’s any further information, and wonders if he should hold onto the 2009 Big Ten rings in order to keep them from ending up sold.  The outside source responds that things are OK and have reached a conclusion in terms of the investigation.  Again, this could be seen as a coach trying to make sure his efforts with student athletes are not in vain, but it also seems to be awareness of a larger issue- one that more than likely should be reported.  These emails do not, as far as I can tell, indicate the confidentiality is needed.

Again, these are my interpretations of the emails. Ohio State fans should be prepared for much more significant and pointed exegesis from the college football community.

Where I struggle to make sense of this all is that it simply doesn’t fit. There are way too many questions involved here, strings of logic that do not connect.  Granted, we don’t know all of the discussion involved here; the University said that it’s been working with the NCAA since January. Because we don’t know certain things, we have to make assumptions about the conversations that might have happened and the rationale behind them.

We have to speculate about Tressel’s response to the April emails in regards to his conversations with student athletes; how did he show his concern for their safety? We are forced to compare his verbiage about why he played student athletes who appear to have been in violation of NCAA guidelines with these emails that seem to be less about safety and more about program management. We try to make sense of the disconnect between a man who seemingly recalls every detail of every conversation and his inability to connect these dots and be open about it during the December investigation.

We also wonder why he chose to honor a request for confidentiality that came as a part of a voluntary email offering information on the program; and chose to do so without feeling the need to consult with the University’s Office of General Counsel.  As someone who has worked in Higher Education, I can attest that the GC office exists to provide both guidance and confidentiality- if I know this, I cannot fathom that Coach Tressel did not.

It also doesn’t fit with who I believe Jim Tressel to be… although the solution there could be that my perception was misguided.  11W’s newest contributor sums this up pretty well in stating that

To believe what Tressel said in copping to his actions, you have to first believe that he buys into his own mantra of paying forward, developing men and it – being the Ohio State football experience – not really being about the ball.

I believe that, for Jim Tressel, what happens on the field is secondary to the years that his student athletes will live off of it… but his seeming lack of integrity here doesn’t reinforce that.

It’s no surprise that there are more questions here than answers. The O-Zone’s Brandon Castel has several as well, including

* Did Tressel forward any of those emails to anyone? When asked that same question Tuesday, Tressel started to nod yes before Gene Smith cut him off, saying that they couldn’t talk about things pertaining to their conversation with the NCAA. If he did forward the emails, to whom did they go and when, and why was it covered up?

* Was this an honest mistake by an honorable coach who was just looking out for his players’ best interest, or was it a deceitful plan executed by a powerful man who did not want to see his entire season ruined by the foolish mistakes of a few young kids?

Again, we may never know. All of the months and years of speculation and accusations that will come from this will not in and of themselves create any answers. Sure, answers may come, but the “truth”, as they say, is being created in the minds and hearts of people who are engaging this matter.

What I currently think is this- I would not be surprised to see these sanctioning suggestions “enhanced” by the NCAA, although the fact that Ohio State self reported and have been working with the NCAA on this for about a month might indicate that they’re good with the current recommendations. Given my brief reading of the events discussed above, it seems to be more egregious of an issue than “I was trying to protect my players and an investigation”, and might be dealt with accordingly. And, if Jim Tressel is the person I thought he was on March 6th, he will be OK accepting responsibility and whatever consequences might come his way.

I do hope that it doesn’t impact the players, current or future, or result in vacated wins from the 2010 season. If it does, though, it’s good to remember that a vacated win is not a forfeit, and that counter in the right sidebar keeps ticking.

What I do believe, though, is that the University and the program are much larger than one player, one issue, one game, one score, and one coach. I also believe strongly that Jim Tressel knows this, so I believe in him.

However, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that what used to be “If he said it, it’s true” belief has become “I believe he has it in him to rise above this”. And I hate that there’s now a difference.

Also worth reading: El Jefe’s got a another take on this over at FSO… give it a read.

About MaliBuckeye

Preaching the Gospel of St. Woody on the Left Coast. International scalawag, appropriately whelmed. #TeamPie