What Jim Tressel’s Downfall Says About Unpaid College Athletes

A scandal involving one of America's most popular college coaches begs the question of whether college athletes should be paid.

By Jamilah King Jun 01, 2011

If you’re a sports fanatic like me, you’ve been riveted by two big stories this week: the start of the NBA finals, and the epic downfall of Ohio State University football coach Jim Tressel. The fallout from Tressel’s scandal raises the question a just won’t go away for college sports. As big time college sports generate more money, should the athletes at those programs — many of whom are black and come from low-income families — reap a share of the profits?

The slow unraveling of one of big time college football’s most respected coaches actually began back in December, when it was revealed that some of Tressel’s star players had been trading autographed team merchandise for tattoos at a local tattoo parlor. The players were suspended and Tressel professed that he knew nothing about the deals. And then news came that reporters from Sports Illustrated were digging into previous allegations under Tressel’s watch. On Monday, the coach — who pocketed a $3.5 million annual salary and was easily one of the state’s highest paid public employee — resigned. On Tuesday, S.I.’s big bombshell was revealed: Players had been trading team memorabilia for years in exchange for everything from tattoos to cars and marijuana.

What’s the big deal? Well, for one, college athletes are strictly prohibited from receiving any sort of improper benefits. In short: they’re supposed to play for free. And their coaches are supposed to alert the NCAA whenever suspicions arise that rules are indeed being broken.

The problem with this logic? College sports, and football in particular, are massive, revenue-generating businesses. The Big Ten conference that OSU is a member of recently signed a $770 million television deal. 

Former Ohio State player Robert Rose, who’s been implicated in the scandal, summed up the players’ perspective, saying that he had no regrets about receiving extra benefits on the side. Rose told Sports Illustrated:

"I knew how much money that the school was making," he says. "I always heard about how Ohio State had the biggest Nike budget. I was struggling, my mom was struggling. … It was just something that I had to do. I was in a hard spot. … [Other] guys were doing it for the same reasons. The university doesn’t really help. Technically we knew it was wrong, but a lot of those guys are from the inner city and we didn’t have much, and we had to go on the best we could. I couldn’t call home to ask my mom to help me out."

Now to be sure, tattoos and weed aren’t necessities. But other allegations that players received access to used cars, health care products, and money, point to the larger issue: there’s a serious power imbalance at hand, and something desperately needs to be fixed.

Dave Zirin writes in his column at The Nation that we need to be asking ourselves whether a system is "insane in which players trade the rings off their fingers or the shirts off their back to get college-age amenities most students take for granted." He also quotes Ohio State English Professor Pranav Jani, who says:

Why should universities facing steep budget cuts pay, oh, about $3.5 million a year or so for top coaches? What if student athletes, who create so much revenue by their play, were actually paid for it–and didn’t feel like they had to sell merchandise to find deals on cars? It’s easy, and even entertaining, to point to the hypocrisy of someone like Tressel, who lied through his teeth while writing books to teach people about responsibility and ethics. But the rot is much deeper than this. Tressel is the symptom, not the disease.

For what it’s worth, the NCAA already has a dismal record with its black athletes. Hatty Lee wrote about a recent study from the University of Central Florida that there’s a 48 percent graduation gap between black and white men’s basketball players.