Ohio State hypocrisy forces NCAA to explore where it fears to tread

If the ongoing collapse of Ohio State has given us nothing else over the last six months, at least we have our villains: To anyone who's followed the slowly unraveling threads since last December, it should be clear that coach Jim Tressel and star quarterback Terrelle Pryor cynically gambled away their own futures at OSU and put the entire program at risk for their own short-term gain, with full knowledge of the potential consequences. If their records stand — and it's not at all certain that they will, officially speaking — the asterisk that goes next to them is already burned deep into the same pages.

But that is only in the short term. Later, when the dust eventually clears from the meteorite the NCAA should be preparing to hurl at Columbus as we speak, the real legacy of the fall of the Buckeyes may be less as the case that disgraced a proud program than as the case that finally killed the NCAA's most sacred cow, "amateurism." At the very least, it should be the case that tips the idol off its pedestal, into the clutches of the angry mob that's massed against it.

Not that it took Terrelle Pryor putting his signature on a jersey in exchange for fabulous cash and prizes for people to start throwing stones at "amateurism" as a guiding principle. Other players have accepted much more, and the nature of the beast ensures that we don't know what we don't know about the presumably endless examples of schemes that have never seen the light of day. But at this point we do know that there has never been a case that exposes the irony, hypocrisy and backwardness of amateurism in all its outdated glory, or that exposes so clearly why it cannot stand.

The headlines out of Columbus have grown more preposterous and more damning by the day, to both Ohio State and to the archaic double standard it's supposed to have violated.{YSP:MORE} Where else in America is it possible for certain individuals to be explicitly prohibited from trading on their name and likeness in pursuit of certain benefits, while the person directly in charge of enforcing that prohibition is allowed to flout it without repercussion:

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Several of Ohio State's athletic administrators workers drive courtesy cars that are provided by local car dealers, including the director of NCAA compliance, 10 Investigates' Paul Aker reported on Thursday.
[Compliance director Doug] Archie's car comes from the Buckeye family, Aker reported.  He gets his car from Miracle Motor Mart, located at 2380 Morse Crossing.  Former 1980s-era Ohio State player Mike D'Andrea, who owns the lot, said he sometimes employs student athletes during the summer.

In exchange for the cars, D'Andrea said he received a pair of season tickets to Ohio State football games.

If that arrangement sounds familiar, it's because it's exactly the alleged arrangement that helped force Pryor's premature exit earlier this month, and that could still cost other players their eligibility pending the results of an ongoing investigation. When Terrelle Pryor trades his status at Ohio State for a discounted ride from a dealership, it's a fundamental ethical breach. When Doug Archie trades his status at Ohio State for a discounted ride from a dealership, it's just business. When Terrelle Pryor, DeVier Posey and Boom Herron sell their jerseys for a profit, it's a fundamental ethical breach. When Ohio State sells replica Pryor, Posey and Herron jerseys for $60 a pop, it's the free market at work. While Pryor is being exiled for selling his autograph, Ohio State is preparing to open up the bidding. Where else in America is that possible?

Not to get all Jason Whitlock here, but even street-level drug dealers who get roughed up or worse for skimming a little off their bosses' product get paid to prevent them from trying. To the extent that student-athletes are compensated for the "student" part in the form of a scholarship, for the kinds of players who tend to have an opportunity to take improper benefits — i.e. the kind who are likely to be on their way to real paydays in the NFL or NBA — the free education still doesn't equal their true value to the university, merchandisers or agents. Where there's a gap, it's going to be filled one way or another.

The hypocrisy is nothing new; as revenues have skyrocketed, the disconnect has become part of the background radiation that comes with following the sport. It' so ingrained in what the NCAA is and so ubiquitous in the way that it operates that fully documenting the two-faced reality of the enterprise would amount to a full-time job. (And a maddening one at that, if you actually enjoy college sports and are invested in their success). In Ohio State's case, though, in the spring and summer of 2011, the target is too large and the wounds on college sports are too raw for it to fade into the ether as corruption as usual. The hypocrisy should be so blindingly, grotesquely obvious that it's impossible to look away.

Reform is nothing new, either. (For decades, the athletic scholarship was considered an improper benefit in and of itself.) So far, the early returns from various lobes of college football's crudely evolved brain suggest that it recognizes a systemic problem. Arguably the three most powerful men in the business, the commissioners of the Big Ten, the SEC and the Pac-12, have all committed themselves to at least "exploring" the possibility of diverting their ever-expanding largesse to the players in the form of "cost of attendance" scholarships, in direct response to the conditions that entice athletes to stray into the "black market" in the first place. The new NCAA president is right behind them. Which, considering the status quo they all work in and help enforce on a daily basis — one in which "it's grossly unacceptable and inappropriate to pay players" — is a departure from the hard line the NCAA has toed for decades.

But it's only a small step, and one that quite obviously isn't going to stop recruits from accepting cash in exchange for their signature, or a star player who likes Gucci belts from taking the opportunity to earn the money to buy them — and in Terrelle Pryor's case, by any accepted definition of capitalism, he did earn whatever he was paid in exchange for his signature and memorabilia. His signature is worth something because of who he is. Until the NCAA figures out some way to acknowledge that, it's going to continue to drown in the gulf.

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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

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