Far Afield: Ink-stained wretches

Author: Jason Kelly '95

Jason Kelly

Word of Ohio State football players receiving “preferential treatment” from the owner of a Columbus tattoo parlor reached NCAA headquarters, where preserving the game’s honor supersedes all other priorities. An inquiry led to allegations that several Buckeyes also sold the tattoopreneur conference-championship rings and other awards’ swag, helmets and game pants. This constitutes potential “major violations” of the NCAA’s prohibitions against free-market economics.

If a regular student can’t profit from a sweaty, nut-covered helmet, then a football player can’t either. It’s only fair.

These affronts to a sport otherwise unsullied by base economic concerns implicate not just the players in question but also Ohio State coach Jim Tressel. In failing to report these crimes to the proper authorities, he acted as if tattoo discounts should not threaten an athlete’s eligibility. Or, as the NCAA put it, Tressel “failed to deport himself in accordance with the honesty and integrity normally associated with the conduct and administration of intercollegiate football.”

Elsewhere on the honesty and integrity beat, the Associated Press reports: “Nine of the 11 members of an NCAA panel that will help decide the Fiesta Bowl’s fate attended a bowl-sponsored retreat that included free meals, resort rooms and golf outings.”

The NCAA Postseason Bowl Licensing Subcommittee will consider whether the Fiesta Bowl has the honesty and integrity necessary to remain a billboard onto which major corporations affix their logos. Fiesta Bowl CEO John Junker lost his job over lavish spending unbecoming a nonprofit — $33,000 for a Pebble Beach birthday party in his honor, $13,000 for an aide’s wedding and honeymoon, and $1,200 at a strip club. And according to an internal report, the bowl also reimbursed employees for about $45,000 in political donations, which would violate state and federal law.

It wasn’t all so unseemly. Among the spending considered a legitimate cost of doing business: the Fiesta Frolic, a golf and spa junket that cost $1.3 million from 2005 to 2008. Guests included nine of the athletic directors and conference executives who happen to be bowl-licensing subcommittee members, including the chairman Nick Carparelli. Accepting such largesse, of course, does not impugn their objectivity — or the honesty and integrity of intercollegiate athletics — at all.

“Those types of things are typical in any kind of business,” Carparelli, the senior associate commissioner of the Big East, told the Associated Press. “I don’t see those as being a conflict of interest in any way for our committee members.”

Meanwhile, back in Columbus, Ohio …

Tressel and the implicated players will serve five-game suspensions in the 2011 season, and the coach could be subject to further NCAA sanctions. His job might be in jeopardy. Fair enough —he deserves to do the cover-up-is-worse-than-the-crime squirm. But the nature of the allegations, especially where the players are concerned, has to be weighed against the back-scratching that NCAA members and their bowl colleagues consider routine. If those junkets don’t threaten the committee members’ credibility to render judgment, then nothing the Ohio State players did — selling things that belonged to them and accepting modest discounts that were trivial compared to comped golf resort visits — can be punished with a straight face.

Jason Kelly, a former sports columnist for the South Bend Tribune, is an associate editor of the University of Chicago Magazine. His most recent book is Shelby’s Folly: Jack Dempsey, Doc Kearns, and the Shakedown of a Montana Boomtown. Email him at jasonkelly545@gmail.com.