The real problem isn't the relatively small amounts in money and goods and services (tattoos would be services, right?) that Jim Tressel's Ohio State players received in exchange for memorabilia. The real problem is the very large amount of money, some $3.5 million per year, going into Tressel's pockets.
Until everyone understands that essential truth, big-time college football and basketball can never be fixed.
The Tressel Affair could be for college sports what tainted home run records were to Major League Baseball, and what the long string of failed drug tests were to international cycling, and what Balco was to world-class track and field as well as baseball. It could be the low-water point, when you can clearly see all the slime and scum and putrefaction that has been there all along. Once you see it, once you really see it all clearly, it becomes impossible to ignore.
Let's be clear. Fixed doesn't mean pure and innocent, or some ideal of dedicated students playing sports for the sheer love of the game. There's no going back to that, if such a state ever existed at all.
Only a sap would conclude that MLB is perfectly clean in the post-Bonds, post-Clemens era. But at least the sport stopped pretending all those freakish muscles and incredible power numbers were natural. Cycling may still have worse days ahead, if Lance Armstrong's carefully built fortress of denial finally falls. Track and field athletes, like those in baseball and the NFL, may have become more sophisticated rather than more pure, but at least we all have some awareness and understanding now.
Fixed means fair. Fixed means creating a workable system that removes most of the incentive for the entrenched, institutionalized cheating that permeates college sports.
Fixed means starting with Tressel's $3.5 million salary, and with the fat contracts paid to other coaches in college basketball and football. What is impossible to ignore, after Sports Illustrated published the results of its investigation and Tressel resigned, is that those millions are not for providing leadership and guidance. They are not for high graduation rates and building character. There are no seven-figure salaries for fielding the team with the highest cumulative grade-point average.
These coaches are paid because they know how to win at the college level, and that means knowing all the tricks that lure top recruits to their programs and keep elite players happy and motivated. The chance to earn a bachelor's degree is not on the list.
We are facing a watershed in American sports. The NFL lockout, the looming NBA labor battle, these sporadic flare-ups in college sports and all the cheating - they are all ultimately about the same thing: how to divide the ever expanding pool of money that all these sports are swimming in.
Twenty years ago, the NCAA could plausibly argue that there simply wasn't enough money to pay every college athlete a stipend. Twenty years ago, the NFL could reasonably try to convince us that it couldn't withstand the salary spiral that free agency would bring, let alone the cost of medical care for hundreds of former players.
Now the money has gotten so ridiculous, with the potential for exponentially more, that those conversations aren't even taking place. The NFL simply decided to draw a line now and make sure its players don't get the same percentage of, say, $16 billion as they are now getting of $9 billion. The NCAA can't hide all the money coming from TV and other media, so it has funneled as much as possible into the bank accounts of coaches.
That brings us back to Tressel and his $3.5 million a year.
According to the SI report, Tressel's programs have been dirty since he was at Youngstown State in the mid-1990s. The coach has a remarkable knack for not being aware of things that he is tasked with being aware of, and of informing his superiors about. This isn't a criticism. This is the skill set that gets you $3.5 million a year from a state university with a big football program.
If there is enough money to pay Jim Tressel and Nick Saban (reportedly about $6 million) and Les Miles ($3.9 million) and Bob Stoops ($4.3 million), and to pay Mike Krzyzewski ($4.9 million), and Bill Self ($3.6 million), then there is enough money to make sure the producers of all this revenue-generating entertainment aren't reduced to trading their game-day gloves for money and favors.
Let's not even get into what it says about our priorities when there is a market for some college football player's old jersey.
It is a big deal when one of the top coaches in college sports goes down in flames. If it doesn't lead to a fundamental change in the way college sports operate, then it will be nothing but a big waste.