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Last night, the Ohio State Buckeyes beat the Arkansas Razorbacks 31–26 in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. The games’s MVP was junior quarterback Terrelle Pryor, who, along with four other Buckeyes, was suspended by the NCAA on Dec. 23, 2010 for allegedly receiving improper benefits (NCAA Press Release pdf). The so-called improper benefits were cash proceeds from the sale of memorabilia items, including their Big Ten Championship rings, which the five players admitted to selling, for between $1000 and $2500.

But because the NCAA found that “it was reasonable at the time the student-athletes were not aware they were committing violations,” a loophole in the rules allowed all five Buckeyes to play in the upcoming bowl game. “The policy for suspending withholding conditions for bowl games or NCAA championship competition recognizes the unique opportunity these events provide at the end of a season, and they are evaluated differently from a withholding perspective.”

ESPN-nation erupted, over what the public perceived as the NCAA giving Ohio State preferential treatment. Then, on Dec. 30—the day after the Buckeyes returned from their 4-day x’mas break—Jim Tressel announced that he had requested verbal commitments from each of the suspended players, to return for their senior seasons at Ohio State if allowed to play in the Sugar Bowl. All five players agreed, which seemed to quiet much of the public outcry. Columbus Dispatch’s Rob Oller called Tressel’s move, “a masterful flanking maneuver that puts him back in charge and quiets critics who have questioned his leadership.”

But Tressel’s deal didn’t satisfy everyone; the new topic du jour was speculation over whether those five players would actually keep their promises to return. Critics argued that if they decided not to honor their promises, and instead declared for the 2011 NFL Draft, then those players wouldn’t have to suffer any consequences for their impermissible conduct. Oller even referred to the players’ agreement as “nonbinding.” Although I believe it would be a supreme waste of time to, say, try to enforce the players’ promises using judicial means—not to mention, a public relations nightmare—I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the players’ promises as nonbinding.

Some will inevitably refer to Jim Tressel’s gentleman’s agreement as his deal with the devil, especially given the way all five players contributed immensely to the Buckeyes’ Sugar Bowl win. Prior to last night, the Buckeyes had a 32-year winless streak against SEC football teams in bowl games. This morning, I bet that some of those same fans who criticized Tressel for his deal, are silently rejoicing.

Next—Part II: What is a contract?