I don’t care about motivation. I care about credibility. —Eliot Spitzer
This is less about the law and probably much less about college football than it is about credibility. First of all, does Yahoo! Sports have any credibility as an investigative news publication? More importantly, however, if it is true that Tressel received information that players sold Buckeye memorabilia to the owner of a tattoo parlor eight months before Ohio State reported it to the NCAA, how credible was that alleged information?
Jim Tressel is one of the highest paid and highest profile figures in collegiate sports. Despite his generous philanthropy, he’s still worth millions, and he runs one of the most successful sports programs in the nation. He has over 100 players on his team, and he teaches in a school with a student body of roughly 65,000. He also has at least one weekly radio talk show, in addition to the countless other interviews and public appearances he attends on a regular basis. What’s my point? Jim Tressel has a lot of people in his ear all the time.
Anyone who’s ever been to Columbus, Ohio can attest to the viral fanaticism over Buckeyes Football. And then there’s this sort of expatriate faction, who hate the Buckeyes just so they can be different. Regardless of their affliction, these fans are constantly emailing and writing letters to the paper (and to Tressel, personally), calling radio talk shows, local and national, and getting on any soapbox they can to tell Tressel what’s wrong with his team (i.e., why they’re not winning a national championship every year).
So the question is—assuming that Tressel doesn’t admit to the allegations in Yahoo’s report—who is this person that allegedly told Tressel about the players selling memorabilia? What were the circumstances of the alleged conversation? And what, if anything, did Tressel do after receiving this information?
Now to the law. For all intents and purposes, the NCAA is the league in college sports (think of the individual conferences as divisions). The relevant difference here from pro sports is that there is no players’ union. Since, in college sports, the players can’t organize, the league wields a lot more power than even the NFL. Even so, although the NCAA oftentimes appears to act randomly or arbitrarily with respect to the sanctions they choose to mete out, they do have an actual set of written rules, known as the Constitution and Bylaws (whether they follow those rules uniformly is an entirely different discussion).
A basic purpose of this Association is to maintain intercollegiate athletics as an integral part of the educational program and the athlete as an integral part of the student body and, by so doing, retain a clear line of demarcation between intercollegiate athletics and professional sports.
So it says on page one of the 431-page Division I manual. (Each division has its own version of the bylaws, which you can download for free from the NCAA Publications website.)
According to the Yahoo! Sports probe, “if Tressel failed to inform [Athletic Director Gene] Smith or the Ohio State compliance department about the players’ dealings,” the NCAA could charge him with violations for unethical conduct, failure to monitor, and failure to promote an atmosphere of compliance. The latter two allegations refer to the NCAA’s draconian compliance rules.
One of the most basic of these rules is that each school, including its coaches and athletics director, has a duty to self-report rules infractions to the NCAA (see Article 22.2.1 Governance & Commitment to Rules Compliance). It is incredibly difficult to comply with this rule, however, because it is oftentimes subjective at best whether a rules infraction has occurred. This is why any school with a large athletic program typically has a separate department, staffed with a team of lawyers, who work full-time, year-round, to ensure that the school doesn’t run afoul of the NCAA’s rules.
As this relates to Tressel, if he did in fact receive information about an alleged infraction, he would have been required to look into the allegations further, and then determine whether it was likely that an infraction occurred. If Tressel did make a reasonable inquiry into the matter—the depth of which would be determined by the credibility of the source of the allegation—and then determined that no violation occurred, then he wouldn’t have any duty to report it to the NCAA.
Moving to the supposed unethical conduct, which is governed by Article 10.1 of the Bylaws, and provides as follows:
Unethical conduct by a…current or former institutional staff member (e.g., coach…) may include, but is not limited to, the following:
(a) Refusal to furnish information relevant to an investigation of a possible violation of an NCAA regulation when requested to do so by the NCAA or the individual’s institution;
(j) Failure to provide complete and accurate information to the NCAA…or the institution’s athletics department regarding an individual’s amateur status.
Subsection (a) clearly cannot apply unless the NCAA asked Tressel, prior to December 7th, for information regarding the violations. Subsection (j) cannot apply unless Tressel knew about the incident(s), investigated, and determined that there was a possible violation, but then chose not to tell anybody about it.
Although the NCAA may, at its own discretion, apply a much looser interpretation of these rules (or make up new ones), we’re still back to credibility. Who is the NCAA going to find as more credible—Jim Tressel, or the unknown individual who allegedly told Tressel about the violations back in April 2010?
In some ways, credibility reigns supreme over even integrity. Not to say that integrity is bad; it mainly speaks to a person’s general character, and moral and ethical values. Credibility, on the other hand, speaks to a person’s honesty and trustworthiness. In trials, juries weigh the credibility of witness and evidence, in close cases, appellate courts often weigh the credibility of counsel, and attorneys size up their adversary’s credibility when negotiating. Don’t underestimate the value of credibility—it’s much easier to keep than it is to regain.