Could Tressel’s Resignation Be College Football’s Watergate Moment?


Photo: handout photo

Former OSU coach Jim Tressel

Big time college football and the NCAA appear to be at a crossroads.

The Jim Tressel resignation is the latest is a series of high profile scandals that could force universities and the NCAA to change the way the way they run major college sports.

In the past if the NCAA came down on schools, coaches would get fired, scholarships taken away and programs barred from post-season play for a year or two.   Time after time rules were broken, punishment served, but very little changed.  Schools like Alabama, Kentucky, Ohio State, and The University of Miami faced even the most serious penalties, but soon were back on their feet, winning or contending for championships.

Through it all the system not only endured, it thrived.   College basketball has been wracked by point-shaving scandals, recruiting violations and illegal payments to players.  Yet the NCAA is in the middle of a $14 billion, ten year contract to televise March Madness.   College football programs have repeatedly broken the rules, but the paychecks increase. This year the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) paid out $174 million to the colleges and conferences chosen to participate.

But as the gap between the haves and have-nots continues to widen pressure is mounting on college presidents, the NCAA, the courts and even the US Justice Department to intervene. They are looking at the huge spread between un-paid players and multi-millionaire coaches. And don’t even think of comparing OSU’s athletic department budget to that of other division one schools like Marshall.

Sports economist and writer Michael Lewis (The Blind Side, Moneyball) estimates a major college quarterback like OSU’s Terrell Pryor is worth about $5 million a year in compensation.   Instead Pryor receives a scholarship, room and board and minimal compensation for expenses as he sees his coach make $3.5 million a year and OSU pull in millions of dollars selling his #2 jersey. And you wonder why he’d trade some memorabilia for tattoos or perhaps want to drive a nice car?  College coaches may look the other way partly as a way to compete and perhaps partly out of a guilty sense of fairness.

The NCAA has two choices: crack down hard on OSU and other schools that look the other way, or change the compensation system and give players real incentives not to cheat.

The courts could soon force change.   Former college basketball player of the year Ed O’Bannon and several other former college players are suing the NCAA.  The UCLA star and his former competitors claim the NCAA should compensate them for using their likenesses in video games and selling DVD’s of games in which they played.  Right now O’Bannon and all former NCAA athletes don’t get a dime while the NCAA makes millions of dollars.

And the OSU scandal comes as the US Justice Department is investigating why division one college football does not have a playoff system to determine its champion.  The DOJ smells an illegal monopoly that excludes non BCS colleges and conferences from the biggest bowl games and BCS Championship.   That $174 million the BCS handed out this year, $148 went to the six largest conferences.  Something smells like an anti-trust violation.

Sports fans argue that the government should get involved in sports.  It isn’t. The government is investigating the business of sports.

Scandal forces change.  Watergate led to laws requiring political candidates and campaigns disclose the names of donors.  The 2008 Wall Street collapse led to some (many believe not enough) banking reforms.  The scandals of the past couple years likely will prompt some (probably not enough) changes in big-time college sports.

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