Learning at Ohio State

The resignation of Jim Tressel as the head football coach at Ohio State should provide some profound teachable moments. Let’s hope that happens.

If the circumstances surrounding his fall from grace were limited to a handful of student-athletes trading memorabilia for tattoos, the controversy wouldn’t amount to much and would be soon forgotten. Unfortunately, what is emerging is a culture of corruption at one of America’s largest institutions of higher learning. So it has become big news, as it should be. But, perhaps not in the way it should be.

Are there minor violations on the fringes of college athletics? In a word, yes. And these violations happen at all levels. So include the high and mighty programs that derive significant revenue from athletics to the sacrosanct Ivy League, which has lived unchallenged for decades under the disguise that they don’t award athletic scholarships (when nobody but themselves really cares, anyway).

So violations, some of them honest mistakes, are part of the system that has evolved to reward athletes of superior abilities with educational opportunity. The trade is simple – the school gets notoriety (which is thought to help financial development) and the athlete gets educated. It is a fair trade. And it works quite well for almost all sports, from fencing to lacrosse to soccer to track and field, to water polo – on and on. It is especially effective in women’s athletics. It works because very few students delude themselves into thinking there is a professional sports career after graduation. So they tend to take full advantage of the educational currency and graduate. Grateful parents are supportive.

The big money sports, football and men’s basketball, are ripe for corruption up and down the ranks of NCAA membership. The genesis is insidious. It doesn’t start because the students are greedy and only think about professional careers as a substitute for going to class (although this happens). It starts much lower than that, and always has, because of gambling. On any given evening in the winter, the amount of legal money wagered on a college basketball game between two no-name schools with mediocre records would astound most folks. It is typically in the millions of dollars. Gambling makes lots of people more interested in the games. Interest breeds viewership, of both the games themselves and of the media (think Sports Center) that report on the games. Viewership is rewarded with advertising revenue. From there you can follow the flow. Sure, some people watch games out of school loyalty and others are engaged in harmless rotisserie leagues. But the money trail and the real corruption starts in places like Las Vegas, some legal, some not.

The bigger the “handle” on the game, therefore, the bigger the possible paydays for the schools downstream. Since only about a dozen colleges actually make money with athletics, the schools themselves are in the business of athletics to take as much of the available “pie” as possible. Throw in rivalries and regional pride and it’s not difficult to conclude that winning the Ohio State vs. Michigan game is a big damn deal – something a university president would pay close attention to. It certainly was a big deal for Jim Tressel who won nine out of ten games, earned an annual salary 20 times that of the most senior full-professor and was beloved in the State of Ohio as a consequence. But the adoration and the success came at a price. Here’s where the business lessons fit in.

Is it right to jeopardize the integrity of an institution of higher learning, especially one funded by public money, for the sake of wins on the football field? The answer in a business school class on ethics would be clear. Absolutely not. Outside the classroom the reality is much different. We are about to see this play out with distortions and ugliness. What you probably won’t see is institutional overreaction, even though that is what is called for.

Denial is the first line of defense in matters like this. Ohio State was unable to control the leakage of their sins because the corruption was so pervasive. So denial can no longer be the refuge of Jim Tressel or the folks in charge at OSU. To his credit, Coach Tressel eventually saw the light, admitted to his role in ignoring a persistent pattern of small violations and was cornered into admitting to the much more serious charge of lying to the NCAA about it all. If remorse is the path to redemption, we should all wish Jim Tressel well. He could still be known as a great college football coach and the inevitable asterisk could become a teachable moment if we could point to a reformed life.

But watch out for the collateral damage, especially in the immediate wake of events unfolding in Columbus. How often will the premise that “everyone does this” be used as unofficial justification? A lot. But, it rings hollow. Not just because it is ethically flawed, but because it is factually flawed. Everyone doesn’t do it. And the people at the top must be held accountable.

Many Ohio State fans are embarrassed by the Tressel resignation - not because it corrects a fundamental wrong but because it exposes wrongdoing which they would otherwise be comfortable with. Winning is fun – and beating Michigan really feels good. If the risk to national success and recognition is an occasional slap on the wrist by the NCAA, even a hard one, then it is worth the cost. Memories are short.

Some will want to make this a referendum on whether or not college athletes should be paid. That might be a valid topic for discussion, so long as it includes the formation of serious professional minor leagues for football and basketball as the alternative. They exist in baseball, and college baseball seemingly functions quite smoothly as a result. Making this story about poor minority kids that should be able to drive around in fancy cars (like all the other students at Ohio State?) would further expose the culture of hypocrisy and craziness.

The fundamental issue is having high standards and living by them. This is the same for any organization, whether it is a business, a university or something esteemed for virtue like the Catholic Church. You either walk your talk, or you don’t. There is no way to use variations of cosmetic “make-up” as a legitimate cover up. Because there is no legitimate cover up.

So the learning at The Ohio State University could go a couple ways. They could learn something themselves, clean house and make fundamental reforms (even if it costs a few winning seasons). Or they could pretend that their structure isn’t filled with dry rot, try to fill the holes with putty and then slap-on another coat of scarlet and gray paint. Where will the locus of learning be in all of this mess – the kind of learning that advances the character and aspirations of students in Ohio? It will be interesting to watch.

Mark Hubbard is an independent consultant providing services exclusively to senior management, primarily in media, manufacturing and start-up ventures. His areas of expertise include: market and industry analysis, business valuation, negotiating transactions, financing and restructuring, enterprise modeling, sales development and training, and executive coaching.