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Tressel’s vest isn’t bulletproof

Joe Podelco / Photo editor

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The NCAA made its move. Now the ball is in Ohio State’s court.

The NCAA revealed the initial findings of its investigation into OSU’s football program and, based on NCAA precedent, experts say Buckeye Nation won’t like its eventual ruling.

More sanctions could be handed down and likely would include wins being vacated and a postseason ban, said former members of the NCAA infractions committee.

In a letter dated April 21 to university President E. Gordon Gee, the NCAA accused OSU of “potential major violations of NCAA legislation” stemming from football coach Jim Tressel failing to report the actions of seven players who sold memorabilia and received improper benefits between 2008 and 2010.

The letter notes violations committed by six current players and one former Buckeye, and states that Tressel “knew or should have known that at least two football student-athletes received preferential treatment from and sold institutionally issued athletics awards, apparel and/or equipment … but he failed to report the information to athletics administrators and, as a result, permitted football student-athletes to participate in intercollegiate athletics competition while ineligible.”

The NCAA will base its final ruling on Bylaw 19.5.2. Sanctions could be as severe as vacating wins from OSU’s 2010 season, except the Sugar Bowl victory. The NCAA declared the six players eligible for the bowl game on the basis that they “did not receive adequate rules education during the time period the violations occurred,” said Kevin Lennon, NCAA vice president of academic and membership affairs, in a Dec. 23 press release.

Tressel could be fired and the program could suffer losses of scholarships and off-campus recruiting, according to the bylaw. The NCAA, however, did not cite OSU for a “lack of institutional control,” often regarded as the harshest of charges.

Michael Buckner, a lawyer who represents universities, coaches and student-athletes in NCAA infractions cases, said Tressel will likely try to lessen the blow by pointing to extenuating circumstances.

“Any coach in that similar situation in which an unethical conduct charge has been asserted against him or her will be trying to provide the committee with some mitigating factors,” Buckner told The Lantern. “Because Tressel has admitted that he did not divulge or self-report the information to the institution in a timely matter, what Tressel is going to have to do … is say: ‘Look, I didn’t do this; I didn’t report this for the following reasons,’ and try to paint a picture of that fact that he felt he was under a legal obligation that goes up and beyond NCAA rules not to supply information to the institution or to the NCAA.”

Josephine Potuto, a University of Nebraska professor in constitutional law, served on the NCAA Committee of Infractions from 2006–08 and chaired the committee in 2007 and 2008. She told The Lantern that even if the investigation calls for the NCAA to recommend Tressel’s dismissal, the infractions committee often hesitates to pull the trigger.

“In the past there’s been authority to terminate a coach,” she said, “but the committee is very reluctant to do so.”

But Potuto added that the committee often adds to schools’ self-imposed sanctions. OSU suspended Tressel for five games and fined him $250,000.

“It’s very unusual for the infractions committee to reject the school’s penalties,” Potuto said, “but in every infractions case I know of, the committee imposed further penalties.”

Tressel learned of his players’ involvement with Eddie Rife, owner of Fine Line Ink tattoo parlor, in April 2010, after attorney and former walk-on football player Christopher Cicero emailed the coach.

Cicero, who had previously represented Rife, knew of his involvement in a federal drug investigation and warned Tressel that quarterback Terrelle Pryor and receiver DeVier Posey had contact with Rife.

According to emails released Monday by the university, Tressel contacted Ted Sarniak, Pryor’s mentor from Pennsylvania, but never reached out to Gee, athletic director Gene Smith or anyone else in the athletic department.

Cicero later informed Tressel that Rife had a collection of the players’ memorabilia. NCAA rule dictates that student-athletes cannot benefit from the sale of their merchandise.

Failing to report the players’ wrongdoing means Tressel played athletes during the 2010 season who should have been ineligible at the time.

After discovering Tressel’s failure to report, the university punished the coach with a two-game suspension and $250,000 fine and held a press conference on March 8. Tressel later increased the suspension to match the five-game bans Pryor, Posey, offensive lineman Mike Adams, running back Dan Herron and defensive end Solomon Thomas face.

On Dec. 23, the NCAA suspended those five and handed reserve linebacker Jordan Whiting a one-game suspension for receiving discounted tattoos.

According to the letter, the eventual ruling will not affect the eligibility of the suspended players. OSU appealed the athletes’ suspensions, but the NCAA upheld its original ruling on March 17.

Attached to the letter, the NCAA included an eight-page document outlining the alleged infractions the university committed and requesting information about 42 topics.

The topics included everything from Tressel’s relationships with Cicero and Sarniak to the “institution’s valuation of the preferential treatment received by the student-athletes” to the football program’s finances and on-field success.

“All of the alleged violations set forth … are considered to be potential major violations of NCAA legislation, unless designated as secondary,” the letter states. “If the institution believes that any alleged violation should be considered a secondary violation … the response should indicate why the alleged violation should be considered a secondary violation, and it should present information to support that conclusion.”

The athletic department released a statement Monday, saying: “The allegations are largely consistent with what the university self-reported to the NCAA on March 8, 2011, and which were widely covered in the media. The university will continue to work cooperatively with the NCAA during the response phase to the NCAA that now begins, and will have no further comment until the process is completed.”

The university has until July 5 to compile all requested documents and responses. Gee, Tressel and Smith are scheduled to meet with the NCAA Committee on Infractions on Aug. 12 in Indianapolis.

The NCAA also requested that faculty athletics representative John Bruno and director of compliance Doug Archie attend.

At the meeting, the university representatives will have the opportunity to make their case. The letter states the NCAA is most interested in Gee’s presentation.

At the March 8 press conference, when asked if he ever considered firing Tressel, Gee joked that he hoped Tressel “doesn’t dismiss me.”

Gee told The Lantern on April 13 that he regretted making that remark.

Mark Neyland, who served more than three years on the NCAA Enforcement staff and provides counsel on NCAA infractions, said a postseason ban could be in store once the NCAA makes its final decisions.

“The Committee on Infractions is in the business of trying to make the penalties fit the crime,” Neyland told The Lantern. “Because a postseason ban is one of the more severe penalties, it is generally reserved to the types of violations that the committee deems to be most egregious.”

Buckner said OSU fans should prepare to see the team’s 2010 victories vanquished.

“Based on the information that we have available right now, I do think there’s a possibility that those contests in which ineligible student-athletes participated, those games could be vacated,” Buckner said. “I think Ohio State fans need to under
stand that that may be a possibility.”

In its letter, the NCAA asked OSU to detail a list of past NCAA infractions, distinguishing the university as a “repeat offender.”

Quarterback Troy Smith accepted $500 from a booster and was suspended for the 2004 Alamo Bowl and the first game of the 2005 season.

Former men’s basketball coach Jim O’Brien violated NCAA rules when he financially supported a potential recruit.

“Ohio State is still within the repeat violators statute, which is five years from the last major rules violation,” Buckner said. “According to what has been recorded in those violations, I don’t think that the committee is going to come out and use the repeat violators statute because there’s no indication that the institution was directly involved in the violations or didn’t do enough to monitor. There wasn’t institutional breakdown. Those weren’t alleged by the enforcement staff.

“I think what you’re going to see is this be taken care of in a narrow focus by the Committee on Infractions dealing with the student-athletes, possible vacation of those contests and coach Tressel directly.”

Ally Kraemer, Trent Barter and Pat Brennan contributed to this story. 

Correction: This article quoted Gee as saying he hoped Tressel “doesn’t fire me.” In fact, Gee said he hoped Tressel “doesn’t dismiss me.”

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