At some point, everyone associated with
Ohio State’s football program will have to look in the mirror
and figure out if the Buckeyes’ 2002 national championship
was worth it.

Chris Burke

Yes, Maurice Clarett ran for 1,237 that year and scored the
game-winning touchdown in the Orange Bowl against Miami. But
he’s been haunting Ohio State’s program ever since.

The worst spook of all came yesterday, when a story in ESPN The
Magazine became public in which Clarett alleged that he received
cars, passing grades in classes and thousands of dollars while in
Columbus. Several other former Buckeyes backed up his story.

Now, Ohio State — despite the best efforts of athletic
director Andy Geiger and coach Jim Tressel to dispute the claims
swiftly and definitively yesterday afternoon — faces a
potential investigation. And Geiger and Tressel are left standing
as a collective Atlas, trying to keep the Buckeyes’ world
from crashing down.

There’s no mistaking how serious this could potentially be
for the Ohio State program. The charges presented by Clarett are
very big ones in the eyes of the NCAA — just ask the Michigan
basketball teams of the 1990s. Oh, that’s right … you
can’t, because most of them have been erased from the record
books because of improper contact with booster Ed Martin.

But before everyone throws Ohio State to the lions, let’s
take a second to remember who is making these claims against the
Buckeyes’ program. It’s Clarett, a guy who was kicked
off Ohio State at the start of the 2003 season for lying to the
police about being robbed. And the other character central to the
ESPN article is Marco Cooper — who was in jail until March of
2003 because of drug charges.

Not exactly the pick of the litter when it comes to honest human
beings. Still, Tressel’s had his issues, too. In a very
“under-the-radar” story, Youngstown State was twice
forced to internally investigate its football program under
Tressel’s reign there because, as it turned out, the
team’s quarterback took money from a booster. Sound
familiar?

So the question becomes: Who do you believe? Clarett, a player
with a bone to pick with Ohio State, who is trying to re-book his
ticket to stardom? Or Tressel, who had an isolated incident at
Youngstown State and now has players pointing fingers at him?

Here’s the thing — it shouldn’t matter.

It shouldn’t matter because college athletics
shouldn’t be boiling down to things like lawsuits and
boosters and dirty programs. Somewhere along the lines, we’ve
forgotten that.

Every year, when recruiting season rolls around, coaches say
things like, “We’ve landed a real character guy,”
or “He’s a (insert school name) man.” And
everyone in the public just asks, “Yeah, but can he play
football?”

Then, when a team loses a couple of games it’s not
supposed to, the coaches are lambasted and run out of town. So why
does everyone act so shocked when allegations like this come
out?

College football has turned into a “win first” sport
— to the general public, all that matters is being
victorious. So Ohio State bought into that. The Buckeyes brought in
a guy of questionable character, who wanted to use college as an
NFL springboard in exchange for a national title. That’s
fine, but when everything doesn’t work out perfectly,
there’s a chance something like this might happen. When you
play with fire, sometimes, you’re going to get burned.

Ohio State — and college athletics as a whole — has
to figure out if it wants to continue to open its doors to guys
like Clarett, who might be great or might be your worst nightmare.
Or a little bit of both, Chris Webber-style.

And these players might bring you your national title. But they
also might turn out to be your program’s undoing.

So, is it worth it?

 

Chris Burke can be reached at
“mailto:chrisbur@umich.edu”>chrisbur@umich.edu

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