Unsportsmanlike Conduct


The head football coach of my graduate school alma mater has resigned in disgrace. Jim Tressel tendered his resignation to the Ohio State University this week after investigation by the NCAA and penalities from the school for covering up misconduct by several players. The story is simple in its facts but complicated in its implications. Basically, a local tattoo store owner gave several current players cash, a car, and free tattoos in exchange for Ohio State memorabilia that they had received in the course of being football players. This is against NCAA rules. Apparently, making a profit of of stuff you get by virtue of being on a college football team is not allowed – while you’re still on the team. If they had graduated, dropped out, or stayed in school but left the football program, I think they could have sold their stuff with impunity. They broke no laws. They just took money for items that were theirs to sell except for the NCAA’s contention that student athletes should derive no gain from being athletes beyond the value of their education and athletic training.

Coach Tressel heard of this via email, said he’d take care of it, then didn’t. I don’t know why. Maybe he didn’t want to get the kids in trouble. Maybe he didn’t want them suspended or kicked off the team for their violations because he needed them to win games. Maybe he didn’t think it was that big a deal and wanted to brush it under the rug. Who knows? Now he’s in trouble for covering up NCAA ethics violations and he left the University despite being a stellar coach, recruiter, and spokesman for the school.

Now tell me, who do you think is wrong here? The kids for breaking the rules? Tressel for trying to cover up rule breaking? The University for not firing him when they first heard about him covering up rule breaking? Or the NCAA for coming down on some kids who made a quick buck and the coach who let them get away with it?

Let’s look at Ohio State football by the numbers:

Revenue generated by the Ohio State football program (2007): $57,000,000

Jim Tressel’s 2010 salary: $3.5 million

OSU President Gordon Gee’s 2010 salary: $1.5 million

That’s a lot of money. Tressel makes a lot of money. Gee, too. He’s the highest paid university president in America.  They get a lot out of this program. What do the players get? Scholarships, room and board, plus training. One estimate has that valued at about $110,000 per year, per athlete.

Cost of tuition, room and board per year at the Ohio State University: In-state: $19,000, Out of state $33,000

Number of players on the Ohio State Football team: 121

So, the kids get trained to be top flight football players. How many of them go pro?

Number of players drafted to the NFL in 2010: 4

Number of players signed after the draft: 1

Not too many. But they get an education. How many of them graduate with an undergraduate degree?

Percent of players to graduate: 63

More than half. But 37% don’t finish a degree, which is only good news if they’re one of the few that winds up with an NFL contract. Because the income prospects for these highly trained athletes with some or all of a college education, if they stay in Ohio, is not glowing:

Median household income in Ohio in 2009: $46,318

Scroll back up. Look at the amount of money the football program takes in. Look at Jim Tressel’s salary. Look at the revenues of the NCAA which totaled $757,000,000 last year. That’s a lot of money. People are getting rich on college sports.

Just…not the athletes.

Five kids who have given up a lot of their youth to football, whose skills on the field are the cornerstone of a massive money-making industry, and who stand little to no chance of ever making a profit on their work as players sold some stuff that was rightfully theirs. What did they get for it?

Payments for items sold by Ohio State players: $14,000 cash, $3,500 used SUV, discounted tattoos

They got a five-game suspension for their actions. They had to pay back the cash and the value of the tattoos. The ink they can keep. That may be the only lasting benefit of their years as unpaid whores to the college sports machine if they don’t make it to the NFL or graduate from the University.

Remember that the school spends $110,000 per athlete. That’s $13 million spent on the football players who generate all of that back plus another $44 million. That means each kid on the football team is bringing in $360,000 in pure profit, after the costs to the University to educate, feed, shelter, and train them.  Each of these kids is worth 4 times what the school spends on them.

So, where’s the wrongdoing here? The sale of memorabilia by athletes who own it? Or the sale of athletes for big money that they never get to collect?

Personal Note: I should mention that I am a HUGE college football fan. I also taught and tutored student athletes in my time at Ohio State and I have enormous respect for the hard work and discipline that these kids exhibit, especially the ones in the non-marquee sports who are using athletics as the means to pay for their education, not a stepping stone to a lucrative pro career. I am in no way suggesting college sports are a bad thing. I am saying that college sports don’t always treat the athletes as well as they deserve.

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14 comments for “Unsportsmanlike Conduct

  1. May 30, 2011 at 2:17 pm

    I think that they should get in trouble for breaking rules they KNEW about. That were part of a contract they SIGNED. It’s a moral issue.

    Considering that I am an Auburn fan, I stressed all year about the did he-didn’t he issues surrounding Cam Newton’s pay for play investigation I understand more now about how the NCAA works than ever before.

    If he had accepted money…it would have been wrong. It would have been against rules. And while I truly believe every team in the top 25 probably does something against the NCAA rules for recruiting. I still believe that covering it up is punishable.

    Yes, those items are theirs. But the deal is that they KNEW they were in the wrong. They signed a contract to play at Ohio State that said it was wrong. Yes people make a lot of money off of college football. But these players knew the gig. They knew what the rules were. Dumb rules or not dumb rules….they broke them. And their coach covered up for them.

    The biggest shame to me is that he’s just now stepping down….that he’s probably screwing them for the entire 2011 football season. That he knew he was in the wrong and waited until the end of May to actually step down.

  2. Rebekah @ Mom-In-A-Million
    May 30, 2011 at 2:40 pm

    Alena, I agree that the rules exist and everyone who broke them – KNOWINGLY, at that – needs to face penalties. But I also think this is a good time to review those rules and the rationale behind them.

    It’s a little like when, as a parent, you say no to something your kid does and then find yourself thinking “Why did I just say no to that? I don’t really care about it. Now I have to enforce a no that I don’t really mean. Damn.” The NCAA has a no in place and, yes, they have to enforce it. But maybe next time, they shouldn’t be saying no in the first place.

  3. May 30, 2011 at 3:17 pm

    I am not a college football fan. I will say that straight off. No reason why. I don’t dislike it or like it. I am a fan of one of the worst NFL teams though. :o)

    One thing not pointed out in your numbers, that I wanted to mention. My mom’s lifelong best friend has a daughter who was a phenomenal basketball player. She was scouted by multiple schools and teams. She had straight A’s to back up her pure talent on the court. She didn’t go with the biggest and best school because she never intended to play out of college. She signed with our home state college, despite it being a so/so program and not a top school necessarily. It was a big issue for her to show that she supported her home state. Her scholarship included, uniforms, a lap top so she could do homework while traveling for basketball, a private tutor for the same reason, room, board, meals, all of the gym time she wanted both in the on and off season, and a clothing allowance. All within NCAA rules from what I understand. One of the biggest things her parents did for her was make sure her scholarship covered her butt if she got hurt. That’s probably worth some money as well. I’ve no clue what that would total but if these top college athletes are allowed similar then it probably raises the number slightly as to what they are spending on them. I couldn’t guess how much, but a bit I’m sure. The coach promised to start her as a Freshman, he scouted her and then he benched her for the entire first semester. MSU Billings came after her and she moved schools with the same exact scholarship the second half of her Freshman year, but she played every second she possibly could through her Senior year, she could have gone to the WNBA but she never wanted to, she wanted to get a degree and then possibly coach. She coaches our local college team now. We have a small extension school locally. So while it was money well spent on her parents’ part, because she was so busy with school and basketball she avoided any semblance of trouble, etc… and she had the option of any school she wanted.

    A LOT of them don’t think to ask for the injury clause. A girl I graduated with signed with a top school. She was a Salutatorian with a 4.0 GPA in high school and her parents pushed her both academically and with regards to basketball. Her parents both played college basketball. When she signed she didn’t have the injury clause. She blew her knee out in practice prior to the 1st semester of her Freshman year and lost her scholarship. To stay at the school she had to re-apply and her parents had to pay for her tuition. Luckily they could afford it but it was tight for them because they had two younger girls at home as well who were coming up toward college and were playing ball.

    Also worth mentioning is the amount of money families spend to nurture their child’s talent. It’s not free to bring up a top college athlete. My mom’s friend estimates they spent over a million dollars on club basketball while their daughter was growing up. Travel, meals, club fees, etc… I don’t think a huge amount of kids walk in to a high school program a starting player, able to be scouted, without your parents having spent a fortune making sure you play outside of the school program. Most of the top college athletes play for both their school and club league to ensure they get the most playing time possible, the best coaches, etc… In Michelle’s case she started playing at age 4 and played for the local traveling club. They went to Nationals multiple times. So I think in a lot of cases it’s possible the parents have spent SO much money nurturing their child’s talent, banking on that scholarship, that it’s a huge sacrifice at home. I wonder if any of these kids have a story like that? Did they sell their memorabilia for themselves or because they needed to send the money home? I’d be REALLY interested in knowing that. Not every top flight college athlete has wealthy parents or parents who haven’t spent every penny getting them there.

    As for the coach? I think he probably has some culpability if he knew they broke the rules and didn’t address it and the kids do as well because they know the NCAA rules. I just wonder WHY they sold the memorabilia? Did they do it because they wanted to show off, or because they felt they were owed something they didn’t receive? Or did they do it because they needed to send the money home or cover a legitimate expense?

    I know it’s a long way of saying, it kind of depends on the situation for me. A lot of NFL players end up selling their memorabilia too, because they end up broke. No one says anything to them, and they make obscene salaries. I think to some extent the NCAA rules are meant to teach the kids that they don’t need to make those obscene salaries when/if they go Pro.

    Also? I don’t think ANYONE needs to make that much money for anything. I don’t care if it’s an actor, coach, professional sports player, newscaster, etc… Why does anyone need to make that much money in a year? So they can have a big house and fancy cars that our children are going to look at and think they HAVE to have? Then we wonder why our kids have such a sense of self entitlement and why our economy is in the toilet. But that’s another comment for another post ;o)

  4. May 30, 2011 at 4:22 pm

    The thing with NCAA rules is they are trying to make it an even playing field for each school. So that School A, with their better booster club, can’t recruit ALL of the top players because they are bribing them or because they know they will win and have stuff they can sell off when they want a new car or tattoo or what have you. They just want to make sure all college level schools have the same thing to offer.

    I will say that IF these players had sold their stuff to help pay their familys mortgage, or put food on the table….I would feel badly for them. But they did it for personal gain. They did it for selfish reasons.

  5. Rebekah @ Mom-In-A-Million
    May 30, 2011 at 6:00 pm

    But part of the problem is that everyone else is college sports is pursuing personal gain. Every non-athlete in NCAA sports draws a salary for their work. Anyone else in the university system can sell their possessions, even those presented to them in the line of being students or employees. There may be restrictions on athletic department staff doing it but I was never told explicitly not to when I was a paid tutor for the athletic department. The rules I was given on my behavior were all about how I treated the athletes, not my conduct.

    Student athletes are even limited in how much they are allowed to earn at jobs. http://technique.library.gatech.edu/issues/spring1998/may1/news2.html Their recourse for having cash on hand is tremendously limited. How is a student athlete expected to pay for gas for his car when he’s only allowed to earn $2,000 per year?

    It just doesn’t seem fair that Tressel made $3.5 million on the backs of kids who were not allowed to make more than $2,000. His salary fell directly into the personal gain category because no one in good health really needs that much to live. He was reaping a financial benefit that would not have been possible without the football team. But those kids were expected to put personal gain on hold while everyone around them got rich from their work. I don’t love that aspect of the system at all.

  6. Amy
    May 30, 2011 at 7:52 pm

    Tressel made 3.5 million?! For being a college football coach, a great amoral one but still…
    Our teachers at any grade level don’t even make 15% of what he made. Unbelievable. and I agree with what Steph said about the injury clause because once you are injured your desirabilty with teams goes way down.
    A great blog post as always:-)

  7. May 31, 2011 at 9:04 am

    Whew. Let’s not get me started on how much we spend on athletics at the University of Georgia, my alma mater, while I’m making peanuts trying to GET the athletes to the University in the first place.

    I completely agree with you that the system is a broken one. It makes no sense that these kids go out and risk injury and any potential at a future career for what amounts to virtually no monetary compensation while the coaches make that kind of money. (And let’s not even take into consideration how much coaches make when they are paid to appear in television and radio commercials for products…Richt has Ford commercials that run heavily throughout the entire football season, and whether he’s making that money or the university is, it’s another avenue for monetary gain for them and NOT for the athletes.)

    While I’m not saying we should pay them a stipend to play, we shouldn’t care what they do with their things. Or we should care a little less.

  8. May 31, 2011 at 12:38 pm

    Totally agree on this – its irritating.

  9. Sean
    May 31, 2011 at 1:58 pm

    From a more distant perspective, we have to consider the fairness to all students (academic or athletic) in all colleges and universities.

    A top student in a Physics department would help the school recruit new students to their excellent Physics department. A top lacrosse player in a Div III school would help the team win, and the exposure would help recruit new talent to the team. But those minimal scholarship and non-scholarship students or athletes aren’t selling seats, or jerseys, or able to pawn their national championship rings to anyone for any amount. What would the top History department student even sell?

    Then, as brought up before, is the moral aspect. Shouldn’t these kids (remember, these are kids) be learning that you have to work for what you get? Sure, they’re working very hard to be athletes. But if that’s not what’s going to gain them a true future (the numbers you presented are much lower than I would have expected!) then it’s even more important for them to learn that there is no free lunch in perpetuity. This could be why we have the phenomenon of pro athletes squandering their millions in the first few years of their careers: they’re given everything early and taught that it will always be there, and it will just keep coming, even if they’re sitting the bench, injured, or even suspended.

    I agree that there is too much money in college sports (esp. coaches’ salaries.) But to allow a few select athletes to benefit from the work of the team (yes, they may be great individual athletes, but they couldn’t do it on their own) and the college itself is more unfair than to not let a few select athletes profit from it.

  10. May 31, 2011 at 4:32 pm

    In light of today’s economic crisis and it’s negative impact on our education system in the USA the numbers you quoted are sickening. In NY state funding to our public school district had been cut by over 35% in the last 2 years. State Universities are facing similar losses. We are losing teachers and programs. Our focus has become so skewed in this country to develop athletic programs and athletes that disproportionate sums are devoted to these areas often at the expense of art, music and even academics. My 3 children all play sports and probably will through college but hopefully their education will remain balanced.
    My 15 year old son is a natural athlete who has been wooed since 1st grade to play up or to play travel. When we teach these kids they are ‘better’ because they are more talented at catching or kicking or hitting various balls is it any wonder that they feel a sense of entitlement. Our high school football program is beyond bad yet even there those players are revered while our top scholars are ignored.
    I ramble I know – but in this situation I do not feel that the students in question were treated unfairly. All of their needs were being met by the university. They did not need the money they wanted the money- they should have waited until they graduated to sell these items. As for the coach- he lied. He lied to the very organization that insured his position existed at $3.5 million a year, if he was not punished in some way what message would be sent to every other coach or player who thought they were immune from the rules that govern the rest of us?

  11. Lara
    May 31, 2011 at 8:47 pm

    One other point for your beautiful blogentry (one word, I just made it up, but I’m sure someone else has a cooler one, like when gay-radar was replaced by gaydar and I didn’t know)
    OSU football players are not allowed to work part-time jobs. Many are poor. Doesn’t give a lot of options.

  12. Kelly L
    June 1, 2011 at 6:25 pm

    Great post. The rules, while established to create equality among all schools, have failed the student athletes.
    But, almost all rules intended to create a false equality where one does not naturally exist puts the more talented, more educated, more driven, and wealthier at an unfair disadvantage. Our government proves it. We cannot embrace some of it and mock the ridiculousness of other parts without being at some sort of odds within our own philosophy.
    Should the rules be changed? I believe so. But then things wouldn’t be “fair” anymore, and we can’t have that.

  13. June 1, 2011 at 7:35 pm

    I thought this was interesting and added to this discussion:

    http://www.abc3340.com/story/14818838/spurrier

  14. June 2, 2011 at 11:56 am

    I am a new fan here, and there, and there…and everywhere it’s possible!
    🙂

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