Wednesday, December 15, 2004

It's time for Ohio State to come clean

Everyone who knows me well knows what a huge Ohio State football fan I am. Each fall, I eat, sleep, breathe, and live the Buckeyes as if there is little else in the temporal world that actually matters. I'd go so far as to say that Nicole is right when she says that I am obsessed. For many Ohio boys, it is a healthy obsession, one of which dreams are made. I wasn't physically able to play college football, and I knew this from an early age, and yet, like so many other little boys who grew up in these parts, that did not stop me from fantasizing about being the quarterback who threw the winning touchdown against Michigan, or being the one to get the winning score to win a National Championship in the Rose Bowl. Football is the non-Sunday religion here, and the church meets every Friday night in home town fields all over this state, with Saturday afternoon in Columbus being the rough religious equivalent to St. Peter's Square in Rome.

With football being such an ever-present aspect of life here, it is easy to see how some people can get carried away. It has been said that if you live in a small town in Ohio, to be considered someone who is a part of the community, you had better know who the quarterback of the local football team is, how many yards he threw for in last week's game, what his favorite food is, and who he took to the homecoming dance. We are a people consumed, to some degree or another, with an oblong ball made of pigskin. The center of the consumption for many people in Ohio is the Buckeye football program.

Because of the seriousness with which Buckeye fans take the team, the outside reader can only imagine the jubilation that I felt, along with so many other people, when Ohio State won the National Championship two years ago. All of our longsuffering years waiting for a chance to be a part of the championship party were at an end, and they came to an end in an honorable way with an honorable coach, Jim Tressel, so we believed.

There was a dark shadow hovering over our joy, however. Maurice Clarett, a young man of barely 19 years old, said he wanted to leave the program as a freshman to try his hand at the NFL draft. The NFL wisely said no, of course, and so did the court system, by and large. Maurice's odyssey, however, really took a turn for the worse the week before the National Championship Game at the Fiesta Bowl in 2002-03, when Clarett called Ohio State administrators "liars" for saying that Maurice had not filled out the proper paperwork to go home to attend the funeral of a friend who had been shot to death on the mean streets of Youngstown, Ohio. Clarett's name became mud, blackball for many of us who took the program seriously. His reputation dipped among NFL GM's, and his football career may be all but over.

There is more to it than that, Clarett told Tom Friend of ESPN The Magazine last month. Clarett made serious allegations of academic fraud on the part of officials at Ohio State. Clarett says that not only was his schedule made for him (and, he says, this was the case with most of the other players on the team), but it was crafted in such a way that it was "friendly" toward players, and was designed not for their academic advancement, but specifically designed to keep them academically eligible. It is true that such practices are widespread in NCAA D-IA football, but what makes this a bit different is that not only was it a cupcake schedule, and not only did Clarett's academic advisor create it to be so, but that he was "hooked up" with tutors who would write papers and do work for him.

Normally, I might be inclined to dismiss Clarett's allegation, considering this young man's known history of taking money from boosters and having a sense of entitlement that goes back to his days at Warren Harding High School. He has been known, after all, to be less than truthful about his involvement with boosters, and even been known to lie to the police. Clarett alleges, however, that members of the coaching staff at Ohio State set him up with boosters who provided him with cars, money, even women. Clarett says that Coach Jim Tressel turned a blind eye to all of this, even introduced him to a few of these people, then said "I don't want to know what you know" about what the boosters did for players. Clarett alleges that among other things, he got high-paying, "do-nothing" jobs over the summer. (It isn't a violation of the rules to have a job over the summer per se, it is a violation of NCAA rules to pay players more than a normal employee would make, which is what Clarett says was happening...special privileges from "special" people.) All of this, says Maurice, while the administration turned a blind eye.

It would be one thing if Maurice Clarett were the only major player making such allegations, but now other former players are backing up Maurice Clarett's story. If some of these former stars are to be believed (and many are people of integrity) the culture of privilege is one that stretches all the way back to the Earle Bruce era, and that the things Maurice Clarett describes happening at Ohio State are normal procedure for players on the team. Former Ohio State running back Robert Smith has said he believes Clarett, although he has said he doesn't think the coaching staff is fully aware of the scope of the abuse, and Smith claims that the booster culture Clarett describes has been happening for a lot longer than Clarett (or Coach Tressel) have been around.

If these allegations are indeed true, the constitute a major series of NCAA rules violations. Perhaps worse, if what Maurice Clarett says has happened at Ohio State proves correct, he has been used as the fall guy to save the neck of a program that has utterly no institutional control, and he only lied, he said, to save his coaches the embarrassment. Clarett says he wants to come clean and save his own reputation. He admits that this is, in part, a move to save his own career, but no one can really blame this young man for that. He does claim, after all, that Ohio State Athletic Director Andy Geiger did a hatchet job on him to sour his reputation with NFL GM's. That really can't be proven, but whether this is true or not, it can't be denied that the mess at Ohio State hasn't helped Clarett's reputation one bit.

What is most disheartening for those of us who love Ohio State football is that whether the trophy is removed or not, this charges put a sour not on our beloved 2002 National Championship. It can be legitimately argued, perhaps, that some NCAA rules are patently ridiculous, and allow major universities to make millions of dollars off of these young men, all while players not only see no monetary benefit, but can't even borrow a car from a booster to take their girlfriend out for a nice dinner. Those are legitimate issues and complaints, considering that these people put their bodies on the line to enrich the universities for which they play. That there is a need to reform the rules to preserve the status of "amateur" for the vast majority of players who won't play on Sunday, but allow them to have some privileges because of the countless hours they put in each year training, practicing and playing for their good old team while others make a buck off of them. (Most players and former players who seek reform aren't asking to be formally paid, they just want to be allowed some recognition for the services they give a university.)

Nonetheless, the present rules are as they are, and Ohio State, just as other universities, is bound to abide by them. If the rules were broken, the only way for Buckeye football to preserve its great honor and long tradition is to come completely clean. Anything else would tarnish our championship, destroy the trust of the fans of the state of Ohio, and forever scar the name and honor of Buckeye football.


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