Ohio State announced Sunday it had formed an independent investigative team to look into the handling of allegations in 2015 that a former football assistant abused his wife. It’s expected to conclude within 14 days.
The investigation will be led by Mary Jo White, who has been a part of numerous NFL inquiries, including on former Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson, the New Orleans Saints‘ bounty scandal and the domestic abuse case of Ezekiel Elliott, himself a former Buckeye.
Head coach Urban Meyer is on administrative leave over what he knew and what he did following a 2015 domestic abuse claim against then-assistant coach Zach Smith. Meyer originally said he wasn’t aware of it, but now claims he was. He further implied in a statement Friday that he followed proper reporting protocols. He has not explained why he kept Smith on staff despite multiple allegations through the years.
As the college football world speculates on Meyer, one of the common talking points is that Ohio State, in 2011, fired then-head coach Jim Tressel for lying about his knowledge of NCAA violations committed by his players (most famously trading memorabilia for cash and tattoos).
One theory goes that if Ohio State terminated Tressel for something as inconsequential (at least in society) as extra benefits, then how can it not fire Meyer for something as serious as alleged domestic abuse.
It makes sense … except that isn’t what happened in 2011.
Tressel was, indeed, guilty of covering up violations at the time, which was a clear-cut major NCAA violation and broke the terms of his employment contract. Ohio State, however, didn’t believe that merited dismissal. It merely suspended him for two games and fined him $250,000. It even offered a full-throated defense of the coach.
“Wherever we end up, Jim Tressel is our football coach,” Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said in March 2011, when the original story about Tressel’s knowledge was reported publicly by Yahoo Sports. “He is our coach, and we trust him implicitly.”
While Tressel, months later, did resign as the Buckeyes coach, that came after additional potential violations were reported by various media outlets. It was not directly related to a failure to report or straight-out lying to the NCAA about what he knew.
Does the Tressel situation serve as precedent or insight into Ohio State’s value system? If so, then perhaps Meyer may be in a good position unless the investigative team finds further troubling information.
Times have changed, of course, and the core issues are very different – extra benefits vs. domestic abuse. The NCAA cares about only one. The other, everyone should.
Regardless, the Tressel timeline, often misrepresented since the Meyer scandal broke last week, is worth a review.
In April of 2010, Tressel received multiple emails from a local attorney noting that a Columbus tattoo parlor owner named Edward Rife was under federal investigation for drug trafficking. The attorney reported that at the parlor, Fine Line Ink, was a large collection of Ohio State football memorabilia, including championship rings, and game-worn items signed by current and recent Buckeye players.
Tressel communicated with multiple people about the situation but did not alert Ohio State, as his contract and NCAA rules mandated. He also signed an NCAA form stating he knew of no potential violations within the program. The athletes involved played the entire 2010 season.
In December of 2010, a federal raid of the tattoo parlor uncovered the items. The local U.S. Attorney’s Office alerted Ohio State. An investigation was launched but Tressel never mentioned his prior knowledge.
On Dec. 22, 2010, Ohio State and the NCAA jointly announced five-game suspensions handed down to five players, including star quarterback Terrelle Pryor, for selling and trading memorabilia. Tressel remained silent about his knowledge.
On Jan. 13, 2011, the Ohio State legal affairs department, conducting a more thorough investigation, discovered Tressel’s email exchanges. Three days later, Tressel is questioned and admits he received, read and responded to them. A month later Ohio State tells the NCAA that Tressel committed violations. There is still no discipline for Tressel at that time.
On March 7, 2011, Yahoo Sports reported that Tressel had received the emails and thus knew about the violations but never reported it.
On March 8, 2011, Gene Smith held a news conference announcing Tressel would be suspended for two games and fined.
At that news conference, then-Ohio State president Gordon Gee was asked if he had considered firing Tressel and famously responded, “No, are you kidding me? Let me be very clear. I’m just hoping the coach doesn’t dismiss me.”
On March 17, 2011, Tressel asked to be suspended three additional games so his punishment matches that of his players. The school was actually more lenient on him than he thought he deserved.
That could have been the end of the story and it’s possible Tressel, 65, might still be coaching the Buckeyes. Instead he’s the president of Youngstown State University.
However, in the months that followed, additional stories from numerous media outlets were published focusing on the purchase of used cars by players, cash payments to players and other extra benefits. The final blow was a lengthy Sports Illustrated report suggesting a wide array of violations within the program. When the magazine requested comment from the school over Memorial Day weekend, support for the coach faded.
On May 30, 2011, Memorial Day, Tressel resigned.
While covering up the original memorabilia sales set the stage for his eventual resignation, in the moment Ohio State was more than ready to continue on with Jim Tressel.
A year later the school hired Urban Meyer and now everything is back where it started.
Does 2011 matter in 2018? Maybe, maybe not. Ohio State could risk further NCAA violations to emerge back then. It was just NCAA violations, after all. Domestic violence is an entirely different thing, rightfully more significant.
Time will tell, but with an investigative team in place and an independent working group overseeing it, Ohio State is at least headed toward a conclusion here.
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