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On Jim Tressel's Resignation and Jim Delany's Efforts to Make Sure It Never Happens Again

(Ed. note: This was written Sunday evening.  It could well be wrong by now.)

Jim Tressel resigned today, after the weight of allegations against him and his program became too much to bear.  There is a Sports Illustrated piece on the way that threatens to blow apart the basics of what Tressel actually did to warrant his hasty resignation, but to date we know his players sold memorabilia and received sweetheart deals from local auto dealers, he knew of it, and not only did he do nothing to stop it but signed a piece of paper saying he had no knowledge of it.  If this were simply the tattoo story from December, we would not be here.  It was a conspiracy of one that brought down The Great Sweatervest, and it's solely and completely his fault that his career at Ohio State ended this morning.  This post is not about that.1

No, this post is about what's being done to prevent it from happening again.  Because as long as the college football system -- and, for that matter, the NCAA system in general -- continues to exploit student athletes, it will happen, and happen repeatedly.  Jim Tressel did what he did not because he wanted to gain an advantage, per se; take a look at the cars your team's players are driving and tell me auto dealers in Columbus are acting alone.  Rather, Tressel did what he did because he wanted to protect his players from breaking a rule that he and his players clearly felt was improper and insignificant.2 And he's right.  And it's why Jim Delany's plan to increase scholarships to cover the full cost of attendance will save us from a repeat performance.

As was detailed elsewhere last week, Big Ten Grand Poobah Jim Delany floated the idea of increasing the amount of full athletic scholarships to cover the "full cost of attendance" for student-athletes; in other words, rather than simply covering tuition, room and board, and books, athletes on full scholarship (football, men's and women's basketball, women's tennis, women's volleyball, and women's gymnastics) would be getting the same spending money stipend that every other student is eligible to receive with scholarships or federal/state financial aid3.  The amount needed to meet "full cost of attendance" would be set by the school, but estimated by the Big Ten at $2500-5000 per year.  To cover the full outlay for 145 scholarships at the highest estimated cost of attendance, each school would have to increase its scholarship outlay by $725,000; for Iowa, which spent about $8.5M in student financial aid and $74M on athletics in general, it's about an 8.4% increase in financial aid expense and a <1% increase in overall expense.  Because each school has to determine and publish its full cost of attendance in connection with federal financial aid, a school couldn't turn this into a salary race for top players without drastically increasing financial aid outlays for every other student.

In criminal psychology, there is the concept of the "Fraud Triangle"; for a person to commit fraud against an employer, he must have rationalization, opportunity, and pressure.  If an employee is given the opportunity to commit malfeasance, justification for his action, and sufficient pressure to secure funds or goods, even the most ethical of employees can defraud his employer.  The current system in college football provides a player with all three legs of the tripod from almost the moment he hits campus.

It's easy to find from where the pressure comes.  Student athletes have full class loads (and monitors making sure they keep up with attendance) on top of practice time, leaving essentially no free time while their sports are in season and little more during the offseason.  Any question of the year-round time commitment of college sports is answered by the Michigan practice time scandal and Iowa's issues with rhabdo, both of which arose from long, strenuous offseason workouts.  Even if players could hold a job off campus, NCAA regulations prohibit virtually all employment for fear of no-show arrangements between players and boosters. 

In exchange for that hard work, student athletes are given free tuition, room and board, and books, but are then left to come up with spending money.  Therein lies most of the pressure.  It's a story that goes back to the dissolution of the Fab Five at Michigan: While players from means can rely on money from home, players coming from poverty or from large, working families may have no such support.  For some, it might even be the responsibility of the student athlete to support the family.  As former Ohio State defensive end Robert Rose said in the Sports Illustrated piece:

"I knew how much money that the school was making. I always heard about how Ohio State had the biggest Nike budget. I was struggling, my mom was struggling. ... It was just something that I had to do. I was in a hard spot. ... [Other] guys were doing it for the same reasons. The university doesn't really help. Technically we knew it was wrong, but a lot of those guys are from the inner city and we didn't have much, and we had to go on the best we could. I couldn't call home to ask my mom to help me out."

The takeaway is that while some players in the Ohio State scandal may have simply been cashing in and getting some ink, many were selling rings and trophies and trinkets so that they could have that small stipend of spending money that their fellow students received in their financial aid packages or off-campus jobs.  This isn't a question of giving athletes another advantage.  This is a question of putting athletes on the same financial footing as other students without forcing them to break NCAA regulations or leave school without a degree to make ends meet.

Rationalization comes from a system where players generate hundreds of millions of dollars in profits for their chosen universities without anything approaching proper compensation.  While the South Park takedown of the NCAA last week was more than a little ham-handed, it was still true:  At the revenue sport level, college sports is a system of indentured servitude, and players are completely justified in feeling that their universities' entire budget is built on their unpaid labor.  The same system, which puts football on our televisions for thirteen hours every Saturday and turns these kids into superstars before they even sign a letter of intent, also creates opportunity.  Trinkets and jewelry is pawn shop material without the university name -- or, even more importantly, the player name -- attached.  We create a culture obsessed with their every move, pay the universities tons of money to follow those moves, and then tell the objects of our obsession that they can't profit.  We've built a fraud triangle and asked teenagers to know better than to disappear into it.

Delany knows Ohio State is toast.  Whether the Buckeyes are hit with USC-like NCAA penalties or not, 2011 will be a lost season for his most successful and most prominent program as players and recruits run for the hills.  And while Delany knows he can't turn back the clock to avoid that fate, he can do everything possible to prevent the sort of wholesale malfeasance that led to this point from happening again elsewhere.  Make no mistake: Regardless of how much is included in scholarships, some players will still attempt to cash in at every opportunity.  Five grand a year might not alleviate the financial pressure on student athletes or prevent rationalization of fraudulent activity.  But for those who are just trying to pay for pizza and beer, a legal mechanism may be enough to knock out a leg of the tripod.  If that can be done for less than 1% of a Big Ten athletic department's budget, it's a small price to pay.  It's why Delany is floating this plan now, as Ohio State's shit hits the proverbial fan; if it can happen here, it can happen -- hell, it is happening -- everywhere, and every other athletic director and conference commissioner knows it.  Every school has that rogue booster with a car lot or jocksniffer with a tattoo parlor, and they can't be completely stopped.  So Delany will do what he can, and try to diminish the pressure or reduce the rationale.  It's criticized by those who can't afford it, but it is nevertheless the only option he has.  Delany's words say Jim Tressel was wrong.  Delany's actions say that the NCAA and conferences and schools aren't right, either.  And his actions speak much louder than his words.

1 -- Delany's formal statement on Ohio State and Tressel, while a bit tone deaf, is quite telling in that it addresses Tressel separately from Ohio State.  OSU had "violations" and reported them in a timely fashion.  Tressel made a "serious mistake" and paid the price.  Tressel isn't fired because his guys traded merchandise for tattoos and cash.  He's fired because he knew his guys traded merchandise for tattoos and cash and did nothing about it.

2 -- I don't want to read too much into Tressel's behavior, but suspending your players for the non-conference season so that they can play a bowl game, especially when you had to know that the light punishment would keep the spotlight on your program for a rule violation that you knew about for a year and actively worked to cover up shows just how insignificant Tressel considered the Tattoogate violations.

3 -- There is some small disagreement on this point, but I think Brian Cook has it right.  Those seven sports offer full scholarships exclusively.  The remaining sports allow for partial scholarships, which would allow the school to adjust the amount of money provided under a partial scholarship by adjusting the percentage of a scholarship provided.  So, even if every scholarship is required to cover full cost of attendance, a school could simply offer 0.4 scholarship to an athlete rather than 0.5 to reduce that amount back to the original cost.