Friday, March 11, 2011

The Great Depression

One afternoon, a woman walked into the kitchen in the big, old home in which she grew up and found her mother standing by the stove, holding an old pot, crying.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

It seemed that during the most desperate days of the Great Depression, when the woman’s father had been without a job for years, he was walking down the street and saw in the window of the local discount store the very pot her mother was holding. It cost ten cents, and when the man reached into his pocket, he found a dime – and nothing else.

“I just knew you could use a pot like that, so I went in and bought it for you,” the father told his wife.

Having come across the pot, the woman was overcome by the memory of her deceased husband’s generosity and no doubt remembered the sacrifices the family made during a horrible era in American history, so the woman wept. For millions of Americans, The Great Depression remains a stark symbol of despair and misery. Of hopelessness. And, yes, of tragedy.

So, when Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith had the nerve to offer hard times as the reason why five Buckeye football players sold memorabilia and exchanged items for getting some free ink done, El Hombre had the same sense of fury he did after suffering through “Caddyshack II.” Smith actually said that the players’ misdeeds were grounded in the good intentions of helping their families, as if they were Depression-era kids trudging off to work in the factories in order to put food on the table for their starving parents and siblings.

Smith’s attempt to make the Buckeyes’ shenanigans seem noble was rendered even more ridiculous when former OSU players began weighing in on the matter. For instance, Antonio Pittman tweeted the following: “This osu tattoo stuff is silly. Cats been getting hookups on tatts since back in ’01.” Guess times were tough then, too.

The swag-for-ink scandal, coach Jim Tressel’s subsequent cover-up, half-assed apology and wrist-slap, two-game penalty (whatever will the Bucks do against Akron and Toledo?) and the administration’s rather cavalier attitude toward the entire situation provide a perfect microcosm into the rudderless, leaderless state of collegiate athletics. Watching Smith try to justify the players’ rule breaking with his “helping their families” rationalization was disgusting, but OSU president Gordon Gee, whose bowtie should be festooned with scarlet and gray pom-poms, was worse. His response to a question regarding whether he considered firing Tressel was one for the books. “No, are you kidding?” he said. “Let me be very clear. I’m just hoping the coach doesn’t dismiss me.”

And there it is, ladies and gentlemen, the best evidence yet that college sports has spun so far out of control that no one can possibly save it. While Gee was cracking wise with his remarks – at a time when there was no room for sarcasm – he gave a little insight into who has the power at Ohio State. When you win as many games as Tressel does, fill the stadium to bursting and make the Buckeye brand a national commodity, you do not lose your job for lying to your “superiors” or the NC2A.

Firing Tressel would be the worst thing OSU could do, because this is not a case of integrity, rather a bottom-line issue. No Buckeye fan wants to go back to the days when the only way a John Cooper-led team could beat Michigan is if the Wolverines were poisoned before kickoff. Ohio State owns the Big Ten football world, and that brings with it giant piles of cash. The payoff OSU would have received for having the guts to fire Tressel for his transgressions wouldn’t have come close to the benefit he and his high-rolling program provide to the athletic department coffers. Let’s be honest here: This is no longer about institutional credibility. It’s all about a corporate approach to sports that is utterly beholden to the almighty buck(eye).

Ohio State isn’t alone. As much of a cartoon character Gee may be and as ham-handed as the school’s handling of Tressel’s cover-up and subsequent lying might be, they aren’t much different than the ways many other big-time schools operate. As coaches bloviate about wanting to “make a difference” in the lives of players and “provide second chances” to those who run afoul of the law or NC2A regulations, this is all about winning. And presidents like Gee have sacrificed the schools’ reputations and principles in return for wins and money. Worse, they are abdicating their authority to bottom-liners like Tressel, whose futures are shaped by on-field success, rather than graduation rates and other measurements of a university’s – rather than an athletic department’s – relative health.

Anybody who read last week’s Sports Illustrated article about its survey (in conjunction with CBS News) of the criminal pasts of players on last season’s pre-season top-25 football teams learned a valuable lesson about what matters on campus these days. When asked about whether it might make sense to run background checks on prospects, coaches responded that if they did it, rivals would use that against them on the recruiting trail. At no time did a president stomp his feet and declare that there must be an end to a culture that is running amok. As long as presidents are rubber-stamping the creation of phony-baloney majors in which to stash players ill-equipped for real academic work, giving coaches free rein over the players they court and allowing a wild-west atmosphere to prevail with cash and prizes available to the best of the best, college athletics will continue to drown in its own filth.

Ohio State’s handling of the Tressel incident has been comical and outrageous, but it can’t be considered surprising. Until a courageous group of presidents stands tall and refuses to allow its institutions to be sullied any further, this kind of behavior will continue – and even intensify. It sure is fun to experience the spectacle of college athletics, but it’s becoming more and more a guilty pleasure. If people like Tressel, Gee and Smith had a quarter of the character found in the man who spent his last dime on a pot for his wife, college sports would be a better place.

Sadly, that isn’t the case.

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EL HOMBRE SEZ: The NC2A men’s basketball tournament welfare program continues through Sunday, as large conferences hold their post-season affairs in attempts to help members get extra wins to gain admittance to the round of 68. Sorry, mid-majors, but there’s no room for the inn for you, now that Colorado picked up a quarterfinal victory, Washington beat Washington State…Now that the Heat have beaten the Lakers, all is right in Miami, and plans can continue apace for the championship parade. The smartest thing Erik Spoelstra did was let Dwyane Wade take the big shots down the stretch vs. L.A. As much as LeBron James is heralded as the league’s best player, he isn’t the game’s best clutch player – not even close. There’s a reason why he chose to team with Wade and Chris Bosh, and it’s because James isn’t the kind of player capable of carrying a team to a title. He’s a good – very good – second banana to Wade, and the Heat will be better off if Wade handles the heavy lifting at the end of games from here on out…Eldrick Woods may become a championship golfer again, but he isn’t close to that level right now. No longer in a cocoon protected by PGA sycophants, fawning sponsors and fearful rivals, Woods must rely on what he has inside. As he has proven over the past 18 months, that isn’t a lot…Shame on the NHL for not suspending Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara for his hit on Montreal’s Max Pacioretty earlier this week. Pacioretty had already played the puck, and Chara used his elbow to slam Pacioretty into the bench divider along the boards. It was a cheap shot, and by not penalizing Chara, the league showed that it has a long way to go before people will think it cares about cleaning up its goon-like play. While other pro sports leagues are at least trying to cut down on hits that lead to concussions, the NHL continues to foster an anything-goes culture.

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YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? It is now official: the Phillies need a second baseman. Whether Chase Utley has patellar tendinitis or degenerative cartilage under the kneecap, he can’t play baseball. And he probably won’t be able to play for the rest of the season. In fact, given the severity of the injury and the possible treatments beyond replacement of the kneecap, his career could be in jeopardy. If the Phillies are serious about winning the World Series, they have to make a dramatic move, because Wilson Valdez won’t cut it for 162 games. It would hurt to take on Michael Young’s salary, but it may be the only reasonable solution. Though 34 and expensive, Young is versatile, durable and productive. He’ll hit about 20 homers and knock in 80 runs. That’s not too shabby, especially for a team with questions about what it will get from the corner outfield positions. Joe Blanton has pitched well this spring, but he is a luxury on a staff with four “aces.” Trading him for Young would boost the payroll, but it may be the only way to make sure the Phils can achieve their goals. Put it this way: Do you think the team would be happier paying $8 million more than it wants to reach the Series or spending $160 million on a first-round playoff exit? Thought so.

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AND ANOTHER THING: Today could be the day it all comes crashing down, or perhaps the NFL and its players will agree to another extension and week of posturing. Remember that even though the players are making millions, they remain a labor force going up against an ownership group unwilling to provide a truthful accounting of its expenses. It’s tough to feel the same sympathy for Ray Lewis as it is for a factory worker trying to support his family, but as long as the owners continue to hold back on the facts of their business, it’s impossible to believe they’re not trying to cheat the players. The owners are furious they conceded too much in the last CBA, and they don’t want to lose this time. Fair enough, but at least be truthful about it, rather than trying to convince fans that you – the same people who force season ticket holders to buy exhibition games at full freight – have their best interests in mind. It’s a 50-50 bet that an agreement will be reached in the next couple weeks, but don’t lose sight of the parties’ goals. Yes, the players want as much money as possible, but they also want good healthcare after they retire and deal with dilapidated bodies and softening minds. The owners want money, too, and they try to convince us they’re struggling, even as their franchise values soar to nine figures and TV networks stampede to their offices with gigantic checks. Both sides are trying to win the P.R. fight for fans’ hearts and minds in this negotiation. Be careful to whom you pledge your troth.


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