Thursday, June 2, 2011

Jim Tressel: The Kind of Satan Who Sends Whitman's Samplers

Even if you don't follow college sports, surely by now either workplace conversation or your friends' Facebook walls have brought you up to speed about Jim Tressel, former Head Coach of the Ohio State football team, a "wholesome good guy" who resigned amidst a cloud of ethics violations.

There was something almost awesomely square about Tressel, with his Transitions Lenses and ties. He was like a football Mr. Rogers, the only man in America who could come home from a sweater-vested day at work and change into something even more impossibly Protestant. You pictured him removing his loafers and putting on boat shoes, swapping out the sweater vest for an even goofier sweater, like Donald Sutherland's high-collared job in Animal House (only without his bare butt hanging out). Jim Tressel looked like the kind of guy who put on a bowtie to take a shower.

All of this makes him a wonderful target for shoddy sports column hand-wringing about propriety. Such high-minded considerations have drenched newspaper op-ed sections with the familiar ooze of column inches that slide by with Plaschkean carriage returns for each sentence and the kind of affectedly tightassed shock and dismay that — even in print — somehow makes you think of people who tell you Important Things with such emphasis that you can hear the capital letters. There's a lot of poor thinking and hypocrisy at work here, which Deadspin's Tommy Craggs neatly skewered yesterday:
SI's story wants to be about the hypocrisy of a coach who wears "his Christian values on his sweater vest," and I suppose it is in a superficial sense, though it should be said that what Tressel profaned against, more than anything, was an outward image of probity and rigid moral attention that outlets like Sports Illustrated helped him cultivate. That's all pretext, though. It's really a story about the NCAA's essential hypocrisy. It's about black market economies and bad incentives and how the NCAA's quaint ideal of amateurism creates both, impelling people like Tressel and his players to the sort of commonplace deceit that the Joe Fridays in the press never tire of exposing.
Craggs neatly covers the cheap journalistic eye-grabber of the narrative of despoiled innocence, as well as the fatuity of "amateur" sports or the notion of the scholar athlete. But I kind of wish he'd taken both ideas a little further.

On the latter point, he goes on to write that freebies from boosters and bartering team equipment/memorabilia for goods is "how gifted young men like Rose get a cut of the vast sums of money they help generate. It's the little con that grows out of the big con — the laughable pretense that college football isn't a business." To that end, why doesn't someone stick up for Tressel? Seriously.

It's pretty much a given that all big-time NCAA football programs feature some black-market economy for players and a network of influence-peddling connections for teams. (Even during my cup of coffee with the Florida justice system, I managed to bump into attorneys all too happy to claim that they were on some coach's speed dial as "fixers" for players' extralegal problems.) It's ridiculous to think that Tressel's actions were at all unique. And, within the scope of the football economy, one could argue all he did was balance the scales.

Many NCAA players will never ink big-time NFL contracts and garner recompense for the destruction already wrought on their bodies. NFL money won't substantively offset their non-participation in an enormous economic empire while in school. Under any reasonable NCAA labor theory of value, college football's structure is odious: thousands of orthopedically shattered slaves toil to push great blocks of gold up the pyramid toward twin Pharaohs of Universities and Television. Nobody seems to care that white people in sweater vests —people with big desks and brass nameplates, people with business cards embossed with network logos — bank hundreds of millions almost literally on players' backs. When the right sort of people make money, it's good for everybody. Even socially good.

Yet start giving a taste of the action to some poor black kid from the sticks struggling through a 2.0 GPA, and something corrupt has happened. He's been tainted: he has perfect hands for catching a football, but they'll shed their flesh in a leprous catastrophe if money passes through them. Until all the players march out onto the field on the big opening weekend and refuse to take a single snap unless every member of the roster gets an equal share of the TV contract money, maybe Tressel was just being fair, even if it was for mercenary reasons of his own. He played Robin Hood, except in a red vest instead of a green one. Also, instead of drinking mead, he probably ended the day by sitting down to a legal pad filled with bracing logarithmic equations.

As for narratives about innocence, Craggs points out that Sports Illustrated (as well as numerous op-eds) focused on Tressel's upright Christianity, his knife-pressed-khaki demeanor, as a benchmark for how far he fell from grace in his unethical actions. But this is just meaningless window-dressing, post facto divination about a sullied character that has the flawless markings of tragedy only because the writers have the luxury of writing the story backward from the conclusion.

It reminds me of an analogy that Joe Posnanski is fond of referring to, the old line about how people frequently claim to see something lurking and sinister in the eyes of captured serial killers, despite the fact that it's literally impossible to see this.*

* — I'm adding this footnote for two reasons. One, Joe Posnanski loves footnotes. Two, I'm baffled by how trenchant he considers this insight from his friend Bill James. It's not an uncommon observation; of course there's no way to see evil in someone's eye. Seeing it is just a natural human projection of "reasonable" metrics onto something frighteningly inconceivable. Serial killers aren't ravening crazed beasts; otherwise, they wouldn't be very good serial killers, for more than a day anyway. They tend to look normal, so we search for some means of detecting a mark of Cain, a taxonomy of the horrifying. Even when eyes legitimately look chilling, there's no correlative with behavior. If it were otherwise, Tom Moore would have slaughtered and eaten a hundred people by now.

Jim Tressel seemed like a good guy, which makes these revelations so confusing. For fans who believed the image and for media members who massaged, enhanced and sold the image for the sake of amateur dramatics and narrative shorthand, the shock at Tressel's actions has to be recontextualized in a similar narrative shorthand. Thus he becomes the great hypocrite, the Judas, the devil clad in priestly vestments too happy with his disguise and his ability to use it to lure young men into a life of trivial compensation.

The thing is, anyone can do this with any coach, and sports journalists usually will. The established notions of what constitutes a coach's essential character will always, when confronted with information about past crime, reflect on the character of his crime — the dark stain in the soul of the man that simultaneously led him inexorably to his misdeed, just as his misdeed retroactively defines the stain.

We can make this a parlor game and play it ourselves. Let's assume for the sake of argument that the crimes in the following cases are identical to Jim Tressel's. Now let's look at a handful of coaches (some with their own ethical violations, some without). Here is what those men tell us about the crimes and what the crimes tell us about them:

• Phil Fulmer/Bobby Bowden: Dixie mafia graft from two men who thought a network of boosters and good ol' boys would insulate them from rules and hard work with traditional wheel-greasing, elbow-rubbing and knowing every judge in the county courthouse by sight, from the field, because they all have tickets along the 50-yard line.

• Rich Rodriguez: A small-pond bigfish who found himself overwhelmed in a larger talent pool. Fearing a lack of patience for his big ideas and finding his own confidence in them flagging, he eventually tried to gain what he saw as a "leveling" advantage, just to give himself breathing room and temporarily hold back a much larger and more challenging tide than he expected.

• Steve Spurrier: Rebellious wisecracker so used to bending rules, flouting convention and being thought roguishly charming just for showing up that he simply assumed rules were put in front of him to see what he would do to skip over them. Probably also assumed that formal inquiries were structured in such a way as to feed him the best straight-man lines.

• Lane Kiffin: Callow and ambitious youth born on third base and still telling everyone about his career-defining triple. Assumed that getting what he wanted without any work was his birthright.

• Urban Meyer: Technocrat know-it-all thoroughly examined the ethics rules and determined that they could not reasonably apply to him. Aware of the limitations of his program and the relative "unfairness" of the restrictions put on him, he chose to circumvent them according to a more rational ethical paradigm, making improvements to his team that NCAA regulators would certainly have condoned if they were capable of grasping their necessity and progressive dynamism.

• Charlie Weis: Fell into diabetic coma trying to read the 12 ethics statutes. Completed 3 and dropped 9 entirely.

• Pete Carroll: Constitutionally weak crowd-pleaser possibly willing to live by his words and deeds, but unable to keep from knuckling under to the influence of more ambitious people. Probably had initial objections to under-the-table compensations, but they faded when he was pressed. Capable of both insulating himself from knowledge of the stronger forces shaping events around him, as well as convincing himself of his ignorance of them when confronted by stark reality. The sort of man who would have joined the Hitler Youth and claimed it was an organization for "outdoorsy people" out of fear — not of government reprisal, but of not being about to hang out with anybody.

And on and on. Try it yourself. Pick your favorite coach and go nuts. You can't lose.

Really, you can't. Events in real life are always a brief resolution away from providing a miniature tragedy or comedy, so all a cut-rate playwright has to do is wait for a short-term outcome and ratiocinate all previous behavior as being part of an inevitable storyline progressing toward the key, terminal event. Some guy high-steps his Cole Haans closer to the banana peel until he finds himself and his Hickey Freeman three-piece soaking up gutter water like a Brahmin sponge. A girl skips out on her wedding during her bachelorette party, going God knows where. These events on their own do little to define a character without some unkind Shit Marlowe forcing a life story into the moments preceding the fall — as if these events need a thumb on the scales to give them weight, as if you couldn't understand them on their own terms.

If you follow mainstream sports opinion alone, the meanest little hypocrisy is excoriating (and moralistically exulting in) Jim Tressel's failure to ever embody the high-minded role shaped for him by B-grade tragedians. He stubbornly adhered to the notion advocated by most people — and the workings of thousands of years of history — that behavior tends to deviate from outside estimation. The only option now is to scramble to explain this deviancy as part of the natural progression from the man we always thought he was — which, itself, was both a mask for, and insight into, who he really was. Just keep moving the goalposts, and being right is always in sight. Poor Jim: like Lear, he divided the spoils of his kingdom amongst his children, never realizing that the ones who loved him most were sportswriters, Lord Protectors of the Program, Defenders of the Game.