Tressel out at Ohio State: whatever happened to fair play in the USA?

Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing. – Vince Lombardi I would prefer even to fail with honor than win by cheating. – Sophocles
If you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying. – Variously Attributed Ask yourself is it right or wrong and act accordingly. – Otto Graham

There sure has been a lot of news about cheating in sports lately, hasn’t there?

Now, today’s top story: Embattled Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel has resigned.

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Jim Tressel, who guided Ohio State to its first national title in 34 years, resigned Monday amid NCAA violations from a tattoo-parlor scandal that sullied the image of one of the country’s top football programs.

“After meeting with university officials, we agreed that it is in the best interest of Ohio State that I resign as head football coach,” Tressel said in a statement released by the university.

Tressel and school administrators have been wriggling and squirming for months now, clearly hoping that a variety of self-imposed half-measures would ward off NCAA investigators and overly interested reporters. Still, it seemed like it was only a matter of time before Tressel was forced out. Today was that time. The decision may have been forced by a looming Sports Ilustrated feature, due to drop as early as this this evening, which is expected to throw even more gasoline on the flames.

I suppose none of us are surprised, either by the Ohio State case or by the general level of dishonesty in all forms of competition. Our culture valorizes winning above all else. While this is probably true of all cultures, I wonder if we’re not worse than most when it comes to our contempt for the loser. What’s most disturbing is the pervasive “first is first and second is last” mentality that seems to drive us. Technically the word “loser” can be applied to everything from the guy who finished second by a thousandth of a second (posting a time that was better than the old world record) to a child abusing meth addict, but some days it feels like we don’t distinguish much at all. Maybe I’m being too sensitive, but as I noted in a recent post, a lot of people seem to regard the Buffalo Bills, who lost four straight Super Bowls, as the biggest losers in American sports history. Odd, because they dominated the hell out of the rest of the AFC during that period, which suggests to me that it was all those other teams who were the losers. But what do I know.

Whatever Happened to Sportsmanship?

I first noticed it during discussions over steroid use and the Hall of Fame in baseball: there are principled, intelligent people who are in favor of letting them all in. Barry “The Asterisk” Bonds. Clemens. Sosa and McGwire. Rafael Palmeiro. Juicers and liars, the lot of them, players whose disrespect for the sanctity of the game knows few rivals. From where I sit, it’s borderline obscene to allow players who approached cheating their opponents with such malice aforethought a spot in Cooperstown. Sure, baseball has been played by every sort of rogue imaginable since its earliest days. I get that. But baseball has also punished those whose crimes called into question the integrity of the outcome (even, in the case of Joe Jackson, when there’s reason to further question just how badly he was actually cheating in the first place).

Why is this principle so obvious to me, I have wondered, when it seems so alien to others?

Maybe it has something to do with how I was raised. Let’s begin by understanding that I’m a little different front others my age. My parents split when I was three and I got handed off to my paternal grandparents. They had been born in 1913 and 1914 and had grown up in a world that was hard even before the Great Depression set in. I learned that for people like this the Depression never really ended (and sometimes I even joke that I grew up during the Depression). It was a no-frills life for them and theirs, and in households where you don’t have a lot, what you do have takes on even greater importance. Especially if you’re Southern Baptist working class descended from Scots-Irish immigrants.

What people like this have, in abundance, is principle. Morals, ethics, pride, integrity, a code, call it whatever you like, but when it came to me and athletics, nothing was more important than sportsmanship. Granddaddy had played ball and he’d played hard. When I talked to those who’d played with him, they said he’d been a very, very good catcher (up until he threw his arm out and had to move to the infield). In another place and time, maybe he’d have been good enough to have played professionally.

But when he talked to me about playing, he never stressed winning. Sure, he wanted to me to win, and he’d work with me on technique and strategy so that I’d be the best player I could be, but win or lose I was going to do it the right way. I was going to shake the other guy’s hand, I was going to comport myself with dignity, I was going to honor the game. If I didn’t, I wasn’t going to play, and I still remember, vividly, two occasions where he sat me down because of my attitude. One of those times he did it in front of all my friends.

As mad as it sometimes made me, the lessons took. I grew up playing the game the right way, win or lose. I was a serious enough competitor that I still remember all the heartbreaking losses. I can remember playing badly, I can remember blowing shots that might have won a game. But I’m proud of the fact that I didn’t cheat. I’d rather lose fair than cheat to win.

Also, I can sleep better, because there’s a part of me that thinks that if I’d cheated my grandfather’s ghost would climb up out of the grave and come after me with his belt.

Emmanuel Kant in the Age of John Stuart Mill Vince Lombardi

In a way it’s the age-old debate over moral philosophy: do the means justify the ends or vice versa? And the truth of our era is this: fair play is for punks, pussies and losers. Few people better typify our ethics than Vince Lombardi, who could have been the reincarnation of John Stuart Mill. Read a collection of Lombardi quotes sometime. He never stops talking about hard work, about preparation, about commitment. But never, ever, are we allowed to think that these values are the thing themselves. One doesn’t do it the right way because it’s the right way. One does it to win, and it seems clear that if you didn’t win then, by definition, you didn’t do it the right way. Winning is the only thing. If it weren’t, why would they keep score.

Despite the focus on hard work, etc., in this world one can only ascertain what the right way was after the fact, and by the way, in a 32-team league there are, by definition, 31 wrong ways to do it.

Am I exaggerating for effect? Maybe a little. Not every coach out there is Bobby “The Brain” Heenan. While the bad actors seem to get all the press, the truth is that there are hundreds of thousands and millions of athletes who care deeply about sportsmanship and about the valuable life lessons we can learn from competition. This is always one of the joys of watching non-revenue college sports, and women’s sports in particular. Who can forget this incredible moment, from a 2008 softball game between Western Oregon and Central Washington, for instance?

With two runners on base and a strike against her, Sara Tucholsky of Western Oregon University uncorked her best swing and did something she had never done, in high school or college. Her first home run cleared the center-field fence.

But it appeared to be the shortest of dreams come true when she missed first base, started back to tag it and collapsed with a knee injury.

She crawled back to first but could do no more. The first-base coach said she would be called out if her teammates tried to help her. Or, the umpire said, a pinch runner could be called in, and the homer would count as a single.

Then, members of the Central Washington University softball team stunned spectators by carrying Tucholsky around the bases Saturday so the three-run homer would count — an act that contributed to their own elimination from the playoffs.


I get that the win-at-all-costs mentality tends to thrive in proximity to money. In pro sports, it is about winning. It’s a business, jobs are at stake, your ability to provide for your family (in a business where your career is maybe five years instead of 25) is on the line, and so forth. (Although, a quick side note. I’m sick of hearing LeBron James talk about how he chose to go to Miami because it was the right thing to do for his family. The average American will have to work for nearly 1,162 years to earn as much as The Decision will make in 2011 alone. So with all due respect, Bron, how about chugging a nice tall glass of shut the fuck up juice.)

I just wish we could confine the professional mentality to the professional context. But D-1 colleges are, at this stage, de facto minor league adjuncts to the NFL and NBA. And the corruption is trickling down. Texas is now being forced to conduct steroid testing on high school football players. How long before it’s middle school? With more and more completely unhinged parents grooming Junior for a pro career while he’s in peewees, how long before the term “juice box” comes to connote something far more sinister than it does now?

So it’s goodbye, for now, to Jim Tressel, and here, in all likelihood, begins a several year slog in the wilderness for a program that values winning above all other things. We’ll see in time what kinds of sanctions the NCAA will visit on THE Ohio State University, and we’ll also see if there are broader implications for people like Gordon Gee, whose approach to being a university president has sometimes reminded us more of Vince Lombardi than Robert Maynard Hutchins.

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