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As Ohio State Scandal Widens, Will Its President Survive?

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SPORTS ILLUSTRATED JIM TRESSEL
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Scroll through the NCAA's infractions database, and you'll find scores of colleges that cast aside coaches and compliance officers when bad things happened. What you won't find are many college presidents or athletic directors who took the fall. Will Ohio State be different?

E. Gordon Gee's handling of the scandal that has ensnared his athletic department certainly raises questions about his competency as the program's ultimate authority. Criticism started after a March news conference, in which he and athletic director Gene Smith announced a $250,000 fine and two-game suspension for Jim Tressel, then head football coach. By withholding information about NCAA violations and playing star athletes whose eligibility had been compromised, the coach had committed some of the most serious offenses in the game. But when asked if Tressel should lose his job, the university's president laughed: "Are you kidding me? Let me be very clear. I'm just hoping the coach doesn't dismiss me."

He later apologized for the remark, but nearly three months passed before Gee had the backbone to force Tressel out -- and then only after a handful of enterprising reporters had made a mockery of the university. What started with a few star football players trading Buckeyes memorabilia for tattoos has turned up allegations of widespread corruption.

According to a Sports Illustrated investigation, at least 28 players -- 22 more than the university had acknowledged -- were involved in the tattoo trades, stretching back to 2002. Meanwhile, the Columbus Dispatch learned that dozens of Ohio State athletes were getting cut-rate deals on cars for themselves and their family members.

An opinion piece in USA Today calls it like it is in major-college sports: "Too often, profit and prestige have turned university leaders into apologists for players and coaches who cheat."

An equally revealing commentary, offered up by none other than Gee himself, ran alongside that story. Mistakes were made, he says, without offering an apology or a hint of culpability. Then he does what every good politician does: he spins. He tells us his athletes are tops in the nation in academic progress; that faculty are discovering new star systems and nurturing democracy in the Ukraine. That the football team's off-field "shenanigans" (my word, not his) don't define a university with 500,000 proud alumni.

"The current problems in our football program are correctable and will be addressed," he writes. "What endures is our larger public purpose: teaching, research and service."

When universities become as closely tied to their football programs as Ohio State has, sometimes it's hard to look beyond sports. On Monday, the day Tressel stepped down, Ohio State officials were monitoring the reaction on social networks, where, at one point, three of the top-trending topics on Twitter dealt with the coach's resignation. A spokeswoman I talked to seemed pleased that, according to the university's calculations, about half of the posts were coming down in support of the administration.

If Ohio State is bigger than sports -- and teaching, research and service are the virtues it truly wishes to stand behind -- shouldn't their integrity be the thing they're worried about?

-- Brad Wolverton
Senior Editor
The Chronicle of Higher Education