BY REBECCA AGULE
When did ignorance become an adequate replacement for ethics? Former Ohio State Athletic Director Andy Geiger invoked this reasoning to justify his university’s lack of action following the discovery that highly touted and highly hyped running back Maurice Clarett was, in fact, ineligible during OSU’s run to the BCS National Championship at the Fiesta Bowl in January 2003. Now Geiger has “retired” amid the recent investigation into the basketball and football impropriety. He cites burnout. I say, too little too late. OSU rode the then-freshman Clarett while he received preferential treatment based on his athletic ability. His eligibility that season violated both the letter and the spirit of the NCAA laws.
Multitudes of OSU fans claim that Clarett’s presence had little to do with the team’s success through the 2002 season, and that it was brainiac quarterback Craig Krenzel who led the squad. But Clarett’s ball carrying gave Krenzel options – options he obviously lacked when playing the next year without his dependable back. Clarett allowed the signal caller to call signals, relying on the molecular genetics of his brain, rather than the strength of his arm or the speed of his feet. Perhaps they have stopped teaching math at Ohio State, but if one would subtract Clarett’s eighteen touchdowns (18 x 6 = 108 points, and that does not include extra points that cannot occur without a touchdown or the number of field goals for which his 1,237 yards provided positioning) from OSU’s overall scoring that season, little room remains for error. Subtract his performance in the more-than-close matchup against Michigan, and there goes a perfect season. And that Fiesta Bowl National Championship? Was it not a five-yard run by one Maurice Clarett in – yes – overtime, that broke the 24-24 tie?
But tangibles and intangibles aside, Clarett’s athletic impact does not actually pertain to whether or not he should have even been on the field. NCAA rules may certainly be archaic, especially those addressing the remuneration of athletes who earn millions for their schools and see not a cent themselves. But they remain in place, and as such must be obeyed. The NCAA isn’t a buffet; you don’t pick and choose what to follow, filling your tray only with the levels of compliance that suit your appetite. The essence of student-athlete should still be attached to the “student” part, and the rule Clarett broke was academic. Clarett realized he needed to take a different course, leaving school and bringing the NFL to court to allow him to play. But these recent actions do not erase the fact that he received excessive help – help tantamount to cheating.
Its own questionable ethics aside, the NCAA presides over 360,000 student athletes, the sheer volume of which demanding that it charges schools with ensuring the eligibility of their athletes. And the NCAA leaves none of this to the imagination, stating clearly in its rule book, “[The Institution] shall monitor its programs to assure compliance and to identify and report to the Association instances in which compliance has not been achieved.” Nowhere does it state, “[The Institution] can do whatever it pleases, given that the NCAA remains in the dark.” College athletics are no more a court of law than a locker room is a democracy. Rather than depending upon innocence until otherwise proven, a university has the responsibility to take certain measures to safeguard against the infractions and scandals that result in loss of eligibility.
Professional athletes often demand money rather than greatness from their teams. For how many millions will Roger Clemens return to a depleted Houston franchise? Latrell Sprewell couldn’t feed his family on how much money? Hard work bears an ever-closer resemblance to certain drugs and players’ organizations continually brush away any real testing to expose cheaters. Appearance overshadows performance – Sammy Sosa doing his hop as a ball falls short in the outfield or Terrell Owens guaranteeing wins for games he won’t be playing. College superstars see this void, which presents no example for guidance, and wonder to whom they are accountable, if to anyone at all. Without a mold after which to model themselves – and Derrick Brooks only has so many hours in his day – these students depend heavily on those around them for direction – family, friends and the entire university athletic community.
This prompts one to long for the good ol’ days of NCAA violations, when the Minnesota academic services department admitted to giving its male basketball players hints on their homework, and the biggest worries resulted from the connections between boosters and nice suits. Back then, one could rely upon the ire of coaches to admonish, if not set an example for their athletes. But what sort of example could Rick Neuheisel provide, even as he fought to keep his job, other than perhaps suggestions on how to pick Cinderella schools for the Final Four? Maybe Alabama’s Mike Price punished his students by sending them away from the training table without supper (though food was surely later brought to the dorms by strippers). As the boundaries between the violators and the guardians blur, the university itself must adopt a heightened role in enforcement.
Its own entity, the BCS does not fall under NCAA jurisdiction. But as the former depends on the latter for its lifeblood, it goes without saying that the two should adhere to similar standards. The BCS should demand that OSU repack that trophy, add a check for revenue earned to the box, and ship it return to sender, postage paid.
Better yet, OSU should admit its failing and punish itself. Now, more than ever, we must rely upon the accurate self-policing of universities and athletic departments. Call it “Invoking the Chris Webber Rule.” Due to self-imposed sanctions following the revelation of loans and gifts from a booster, the wins of the Fab Five, the decorations from the Final Four appearances in the Crisler Arena and almost half a million dollars became mere memories for Big Blue. A member of the NBA since 1995, Webber had already built another life. But the reputations of both could not compensate for these infractions, and Michigan took appropriate action. Whether or not Geiger’s innocence of Clarett’s previous infraction extends as far as the claims, before his departure he certainly couldn’t profess ignorance of the player’s illegal status during the 2002-2003 season. And as Michigan’s recent banner-lowering lesson taught, righting such wrongs cannot happen too late.
Without fear of NCAA sanctions, OSU can simply move forward. In Geiger’s words, “If the university was unaware or uninvolved, then the university is not culpable.” But such forward motion would simply trample the hard-won reputation of Ohio State Athletics. Woody Hayes would have done much more than just make Clarett run wind sprints for a while. As long as the Fiesta Bowl trophy remains in Columbus, its tarnish will spread to the school, its faculty and students, and its history.