Pryor’s acts expose charade of college athletics

Terrelle “The Truth” Pryor is my favorite college football player and it isn’t just the way the Ohio State quarterback can shred defenses.

Pryor is a godsend to anyone who believes the business of college athletics is little more than a smoke-and-mirror show of situational ethics, selective enforcement and tightly controlled public relations designed to dodge taxes and make millionaires out of administrators.

Perhaps no player has ever exposed the system and its handlers more clearly than Pryor leading into Tuesday’s Sugar Bowl against Arkansas. He may not have consciously planned to do what he’s doing – although I suspect he has a clue – but he’s become a WikiLeaks in shoulder pads; a “30 For 30” special in real time.

Every time Terrelle Pryor says something, the system responds in some embarrassing way that only makes things worse.
(Jamie Sabau / Getty Images)

When he isn’t violating some NCAA rule, he’s shining a light on the absurdity of how the sport’s power players managed to rewrite said rule so its cash flow could continue unabated. Each Pryor quote seems to prompt the system to respond in some bumbling, embarrassing way that only makes things worse.

[Photos: See more of Terrelle Pryor in action]

Consider The Truth’s last two weeks and the suits constant scramble to clean everything up.

On Dec. 22, Fox 28 in Columbus reported Ohio State was dealing with a compliance issue involving a number of players receiving tattoos from an area parlor in exchange for signed memorabilia.

The move sent Buckeye Nation into a panic as rumors swirled of potential mass suspensions for the bowl game.

Pryor took to his Twitter account and boldly declared: “I paid for my tattoos,” a seemingly innocent man putting speculation to rest. OK, everything was cool.

At least until the next day when Pryor and four teammates would be suspended for the first five games of the 2011 season for selling gifts and memorabilia. In Pryor’s case, he netted $1,250 for dealing his 2008 Big Ten ring, his 2009 Fiesta Bowl sportsmanship award and his 2008 Gold Pants.

So that might be where he got the money for the tattoos. The tweet was deleted, naturally.

We’ll use this moment to remind readers of our longstanding opinion that most of these rules are ridiculous and players such as Pryor, who earn millions for their schools, deserve a better compensation model than just tuition, room and board. This isn’t an argument justifying the NCAA. If it’s going to have rules, though, shouldn’t it enforce them? And, yes, Ohio State’s creative defense would be employed by nearly every other school.

The initial reaction was that a five-game suspension for selling trinkets seemed rather harsh. Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples noted the irony of selling a “sportsmanship” award from the Fiesta Bowl, which is currently facing a grand jury probe for violating federal and state campaign finance laws.

It isn't easy to focus on the Sugar Bowl with all the off-field stuff about Terrelle Pryor.
(Patrick Semansky / AP)

The strange part, though, was that Pryor and the others would remain eligible for the Sugar Bowl, effectively pushing their suspensions back. That allowed most of them the choice of avoiding any penalty by simply turning pro.

Ohio State and the NCAA cited an obscure rules interpretation that claimed a suspension could be postponed to preserve a “unique opportunity.” They then decided a bowl game was such an opportunity. Ohio State further claimed Pryor and the others hadn’t been properly educated on the rules, an excuse that caused laughter across college athletics.

[Rewind: Announcer fired for taunting Cam Newton over allegations]

After all, we’ve seen entire NCAA basketball tournaments stripped from the record books for such acts. And what about the “unique opportunity” two seasons of Southern California players can’t have because Reggie Bush once took money from agents? Or as Rich Brooks, who spent 25 years as a head coach before retiring from Kentucky last year, tweeted: “You are kidding that players at Ohio State did not know it was illegal to sell their rings and awards!! Can play in bowl game?? Crazy!!”

And while a bumbling compliance staff is always an easy scapegoat, the Ohio State student newspaper, The Lantern, quoted former Buckeye Thaddeus Gibson (2007-09), who claimed players were repeatedly told not to sell items.

“Oh yeah, they [OSU athletic director Gene Smith and the coaches] talked about it a lot,” Gibson told the paper.


AD Smith promptly declared that the issue with memorabilia sales and free tattoos was “isolated.” That led to former Buckeye Antonio Pittman to tweet to the contrary: “cats been getting hookups on tatts since back in 01.”

Then reported the tattoo parlor’s owner had pictures of all sorts of Ohio State player memorabilia, including some from Pryor, on his Facebook page. The website also reported Gibson, among nine Buckeyes, got tattoos to the same tattoo parlor.

Every OSU fan message board became filled with tales of signed stuff hanging on the walls of area restaurants, bars and car dealerships.

Conspiracy theories on why the players were eligible for the Sugar Bowl emerged immediately. They ranged from the Big Ten fearing another possible ugly loss to the SEC to the need for the Sugar Bowl to produce a reasonable television rating in the face of sagging numbers for bowls overall. Plus Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany and OSU president E. Gordon Gee are the chief defenders of the BCS.

Then there’s the general cronyism that exists between bowl games and the college administrators who keep them financially alive. On Dec. 30, PlayoffPAC revealed that the Orange Bowl provided a free, five-day Caribbean cruise in 2010 to 40 athletic directors, conference officials and their wives, in violation, the group alleges, of IRS rules.

On Dec, 29, the NCAA responded to the backlash by issuing a rare statement declaring: “the notion that the NCAA is selective with its eligibility decisions and rules enforcement is another myth with no basis in fact … Money is not a motivator or factor.”

Within hours Sugar Bowl CEO Paul Hoolahan had blown that out of the water when he confirmed everyone’s suspicions and said that not only did he lobby hard for Pryor and the others to get a reprieve but also that the powers that be listened to him.

“I made the point that anything that could be done to preserve the integrity of this year’s game, we would greatly appreciate it,” Hoolahan told the Columbus Dispatch. “That appeal did not fall on deaf ears.”


Hoolahan went on to deem Ohio State fan concerns about their school putting the integrity of a bowl game in front of the integrity of Woody Hayes’ program as “Midwestern values.”

By this point, the usual rally around the player and/or program had fallen apart. While some Buckeye fans still defended Pryor and Ohio State, there was a huge negative backlash on message boards, talk radio shows and in letters to the state newspapers. Not even fans were buying the circular excuses.

Then Pryor showed up at the Sugar Bowl and proceeded to cast doubt on the promise supposedly made by the suspended players that they’d return for next season (a supposed condition on their bowl eligibility). Later he appeared to hack at Ohio State’s claim the players didn’t know the rules in the first place.

“I already knew what I shouldn’t have done back two years ago,” he said.

Terrelle Pryor, left, and Dan Herron are among the suspended players.
(Andrew Weber / US Presswire)

He even responded to criticism by former Buckeye quarterback and current ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit by mocking, “Has he beat Michigan?” (OSU went 0-4-1 against UM during Herbstreit’s career). The positive for enraged Buckeye fans: Pryor may sell the gold pants given to him for beating Michigan, but he obviously does consider it a measuring stick.

Just as things were quieting down, the Dispatch reported on Jan. 2 that Pryor had been pulled over by police three times in the last three years driving “loaner” cars from a local used car dealer, Auto Direct. Pryor told the paper he only borrowed the cars when his own car (currently a Dodge Charger) was in the shop with repairs.

Ohio State said it was aware of two of the incidents and would look into the third. If we’re led to believe the borrowing of cars were again isolated incidents, then Pryor has some bad luck with local cops. He seemingly gets pulled over every time he receives a nice loaner. Either that or he drives them all the time, of course.

The car dealer did tell the newspaper that he also allowed Pryor, in 2008, to drive a Dodge SUV back to Pryor’s home in Pennsylvania. “I wanted advice from some of my family and friends I trusted to see if it would be a good vehicle for me to maybe buy,” Pryor said.

Unsupervised, out-of-state test drivers of used cars are common practice, correct?


Pryor didn’t buy the car, of course. Ohio State, quite naturally, declared everything on the up and up. How? Well, they just did. This wasn’t a violation of NCAA rules.

It is apparently just a coincidence that the dealership, according to the Dispatch, has more than two dozen autographed Buckeye jerseys on display, including ones from Pryor and a couple of the other “suspended” players. Or that there are player autographs all over the walls of the showroom.

It’s also just a coincidence that the used car loaner system Pryor enjoyed is eerily similar to the one former Buckeye Maurice Clarett detailed to ESPN the Magazine back in 2004. “When you’re hot in Columbus, you just go,” Clarett told the Magazine. “Somebody’s going to recognize your face. You say, ‘I need to use a car.’ ‘OK, here you go.’”

Yep, here you go.

While Pryor has received most of the criticism, you can only blame him so much for either breaking or putting himself in danger of breaking NCAA rules that the very administrators he earns huge salaries appear to care little about. A rule is only as strong as the consequences and from his school, to his conference, to his bowl game, to the NCAA itself, there’s no lack of positioning to avoid real penalties.

If the adults don’t take the rules seriously, why should the players?

At this point, Pryor is set to play Tuesday but miss nearly half of next season. (Ohio State is appealing, of course). Meanwhile the entire absurdity of his situation churns on. The school wants its star player on the field. The bowl wants its money. ESPN wants its TV rating. The league wants a victory over the SEC.

Perhaps only Gordon Gee, Jim Delany a few assorted BCS reps believe Terrelle Pryor is an actual eligible student-athlete at this point. At least if you applied the NCAA rules as they previously had been enforced for decades.

Everyone else is expected to play pretend, ignore the man behind the curtain and eagerly await the next chapter of the Terrelle “The Truth” Pryor Show. First he gets to run and throw, then, hopefully, he gets to keep talking.

We’ll gladly loan him our car all next season if he’ll stick around and continue exposing this charade. Let the unwitting whistle-blower play on and on and on.

Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Dan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Monday, Jan 3, 2011