COLUMBUS, Ohio — Welcome to Tattoo U.
What started out as a trip to a Columbus tattoo parlor by a couple of football players has created all sorts of mayhem for star quarterback Terrelle Pryor and Ohio State.
Pryor and four teammates were suspended Thursday by the NCAA for the first five games of next season for selling championship rings, jerseys and awards. They also received improper benefits – from up to two years ago – from the tattoo parlor and its owner.
"I learned more about tattoos than I ever really want to possibly know," athletic director Gene Smith said. "As a student-athlete, you're not allowed to use your persona to get discounted services."
The NCAA said all can still play in the Sugar Bowl against Arkansas on Jan. 4. Ohio State's first five games next season are against Akron, Toledo, Miami, Colorado and Michigan State. Ohio State plans to appeal, hoping the number of games might be reduced.
Tattoos can run anywhere from $50 to hundreds or even thousands of dollars. Many college athletes have more than one. Pryor certainly does. One arm alone is covered from his biceps to his wrist.
"I paid for my tattoos. Go Bucks" Pryor posted on his Twitter account Wednesday night.
He even sold a sportsmanship award from the 2008 Fiesta Bowl along with his 2008 Big Ten championship ring. More egregious to Ohio State fans, he sold a "gold pants" trinket – an iconic charm given to players who are a part of a victory over archrival Michigan. He may not be easily forgiven by Buckeye fans who revere such traditions.
His teammates also sold Big Ten championship rings – the Buckeyes have won the last six conference titles – plus football jerseys, pants and shoes.
Along with Pryor, leading rusher Daniel "Boom" Herron, No. 2 wide receiver DeVier Posey, All-Big Ten offensive tackle Mike Adams and backup defensive end Solomon Thomas must sit out the five games and donate $1,000 to $2,500 – the value of the things they sold or the discounts they received – to charity.
A sixth player, freshman linebacker Jordan Whiting, must sit out the first game of the 2011 season and pay $150 to a charity.
Smith said the punishment should be mitigated because of how the players used the money they received.
"The time this occurred with these young men was a very tough time in our society. It's one of the toughest economic environments in our history," he said. "The decisions that they made they made to help their families."
Smith was asked how getting money for their families jibed with getting free or cut-rate tattoos.
"The discount on tattoos is not as big as the other pieces," he said. "I'm not trying to make those two the same. But the cash was relative to family needs."
The Associated Press left several phone messages at what is believed to be the tattoo parlor in question. Smith, coach Jim Tressel and the NCAA did not provide its name because it is part of an ongoing federal investigation.
"We all have a little sensor within us, 'Well, I'm not sure if I should be doing this,'" Tressel said. "And sometimes it gets overrided by what you think your necessity is. ... I would have to think that there was no way that they just thought that (selling items) would be common practice."
After the bowl game, all five may have to make decisions about whether they'll come back for a shortened senior season or enter the NFL draft. Tressel acknowledges their decisions could be influenced by the NFL's uncertain labor situation.
"I'm not sure this would be the most advantageous time to have a job interview (with the NFL)," he said.
The NCAA did not suspend the players for Jan. 4 Sugar Bowl against the eighth-ranked Razorbacks because they "did not receive adequate rules education during the time period the violations occurred."
"These are significant penalties based on findings and information provided by the university," Kevin Lennon, NCAA vice president of academic and membership affairs, said in a statement.
Lennon said a game was added to the usual four-game penalty because the players did not "immediately disclose the violations when presented with the appropriate rules education."
There are seven full-time staffers and two interns in Ohio State's compliance department. Smith said they were complicit in the violations because they didn't make it "explicit" to players they weren't permitted to receive such benefits.
Smith and Tressel said they were relieved the players can play in the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans. The NCAA said its policy allows players to participate in a championship or bowl game if they were "not aware they were committing violations."
"We respect the decision made by the NCAA and the Big Ten Conference and we appreciate the efforts made by Ohio State and the Big Ten to allow the student-athletes to participate in our game," Sugar Bowl CEO Paul Hoolahan said.
As Smith and Tressel left Thursday's news conference, Smith tried to lighten the mood.
"We might," he said with a smile, "hire a tattoo person and put them in the Woody Hayes (Athletic Center)."