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Jim Tressel, And The NCAA Investigation: Defending Your Life

What motivated Jim Tressel to betray his public image? Why does the media insist on affixing any scandal with the word "gate" on the end? What does Albert Brooks have to do with Ohio State football?

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Judgment City Tribunal: Coach Jim Tressel, I'm sure your defender has explained all of the basics to you, but let me just say: Even though this feels like a trial, it really isn't. It's just a process that helps us decide, and as imperfect as it may be, we think it works quite well. What you're going to see on this screen, Coach, will look and feel so real to you you might be a little uneasy at first...

No, that's not the NCAA's opening statement for Ohio State's upcoming August 12th meeting to discuss their Notice of Allegations.

That dialogue - with a slight alteration - comes from Albert Brooks' brilliant Defending Your Life, in which the protagonist, Daniel Miller, must confront and explain the hypocrisies of his actions on Earth before an otherworldly tribunal so that he doesn't have to repeat the karmic cycle of birth and rebirth. Whatever you think of the movie's cosmology, it's an interesting premise, and it naturally lends itself to reflection on one's own mistakes.

What events from my life would make it on that screen? What would I have to defend?

For Jim Tressel that screen flickers and then zooms in on a troubling e-mail. It's April 2nd, 2010 and he has just been informed by a concerned Columbus lawyer, a former Buckeye walk-on, of improprieties concerning his star QB and other Buckeye starters. The Buckeyes are a national championship contender and the season is still five months away. It's unlikely that he set out willfully to begin a year of obfuscation, omission, and outright lying to Ohio State and the NCAA. But that's what happened. How would the author of a book that purports to be the Winner's Manual for Life defend this chapter of his own?

I've been reluctant to opine on Tressel's troubles. The reasons are many.

First, the media's desire to take any scandal and attach the suffix "-gate" to it irrespective of what relation it actually bears to Watergate is more troubling than Maurice Clarett's impulse control. Tatgate. Cargate. Big 10 defenders think Terrelle Pryor has a deceiving gait-gate. Let's try to keep some allusional distance between bread and circus hijinks and circumvention of the Republic, shall we?  

My suggestion to call it the Tressel-Contra-Sally Hemmings Zimmerman Telegram Affair has met with resistance. Too catchy?

Second, college football has become so scandal ridden that, like many fans, I'm suffering from fatigue. North Carolina had an entire roster of NFL draft choices suspended; the SEC came through with a characteristic epidemic of rule flaunting; USC was seal clubbed after tweaking the NCAA so shamelessly and repeatedly that the organization finally managed to print a PDF of Yahoo Sports' investigative reporting and attach some sanctions on a post-it; the Heisman winner chased from Florida for appropriating electronics was openly sold on an auction block and then excused on the basis that it's not unreasonable to demand $180,000 to spend a year in Starkville (agreed) and that there was no smoking gun of an Auburn counteroffer - just the sound of a shot, a guy in overalls heaving something gun-like into a dumpster, and then lots of giggling; all culminating in a national championship match that could have been dubbed The Street Agent Bowl.

Third, ripping into Tressel's contorted logic for lying to the NCAA and his administration as well as other errors of omission and obfuscation is too easy. That is if you believe facts gleaned from dated e-mails, federal investigators, Tressel's signed proclamation to the NCAA that he was unaware of any violations, and you can spare five minutes for a quick perusal of a just-the-facts timeline that pricks Tressel's contorted balloon animals of explanation with a rapier.

Tressel's surreal press conference highlights went roughly as follows: protecting the children, didn't want to jeopardize a federal investigation, protecting the kids again, a promise of secrecy sealed with a pinky swear prevented the exercise of basic discipline or responsibility, the children are our future, teach them well, and keep them eligible at all costs - and, amusingly, his revelation that he didn't think less of himself after reflecting on his behaviors. Apparently his original plan to deliver Otter's court room speech from Animal House draped in an American flag standing in a box of frolicking golden retriever puppies was judged not manipulative enough.  

Fourth, it doesn't matter. There, I said it. I don't mean to be defeatist, but if Ohio State doesn't care, why do we? Beyond issues of competitive balance, I mean. The ultimate stakes are whether or not at Ohio State the PE department runs the show and how that serves the good people of Ohio at its flagship university. Let them work to build a university that the football team can be proud of. Buckeye rubber stamp Athletic Director Gene Smith is alright with the fact that he was deliberately misled and Ohio State President Gordon Gee's jest that he was more concerned about The Vest firing him than vice versa proves Peter Ustinov's contention that comedy is simply a funny way of being serious. Jim Tressel's classroom holds 100,000 in paid attendance and it has merchandising. He's supposed to kowtow to a tweedy academic dressed like Pee Wee Herman?

Fifth, haters gonna hate. So rings the insipid rallying cry of defense for Jersey Shore cast members, the Kardashians, and the fan base of any proud winning program confronted with scandal that embarrasses them. How do you confront that wisdom of the ancients? The sheer elegance of its teleology. The conceit is that Ohio State is so envied, so powerful, so beloved that a group of vocal haters - motivated by their own insecurity, affiliation to Michigan, or general disrespect for Hey, Sloopy - are creating or amplifying wrongdoing where there is none. This is compelling. Aside from the fact that no external agent has anything to do with these troubles. Ohio State essentially pulled a grenade pin, looked at it, shrugged, and then placed it inside their Chris Spielman starter jersey. We're haters for pointing out that half of their mustache is blown off and that their hoody is smoldering.

"Quite honestly, I was scared." - Jim Tressel, March 8, 2011

That quote from his press conference - a kernel of self-reflection in a towering grain silo of self-justification - is the most honest thing Jim Tressel has said on the matter in a year.

And that brings us back full circle...

Judgment City Prosecutor: I will attempt to show that Jim Tressel, while he's a quality human being, is still held back by the fears that plague him lifetime after lifetime. I believe that I can show, without a shadow of a doubt, that he must once again be returned to Earth to work on his problem....

Defending Your Life contends that our hypocrisies are motivated at their core by fear. Fear of disappointment, fear of loss, fear of failure, fear of change. Fear of letting down an extraordinarily motivated fan base at one of college football's premier jobs. Fear of jeopardizing a national title run or another Big 10 title. Fear of having to dig deeper into things that aren't quite right in the program. Fear of marring an immaculate public image. Fear of another embarrassment on a big stage. Fear motivated Jim Tressel to act in ways he still hasn't squared fully with himself, much less Ohio State, at least if his public pronouncements are any guide.

Fear compelled Jim Tressel to play ethical Tresselball. Punt forward a problem repeatedly for almost a year, play defense, hope for a turnover, and wait for the clock to tick to zero. It worked as well against SEC-style scandal as it has against SEC teams.