- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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It's going to be a rough Christmas in Columbus.
After several days of rumors and speculation, Ohio State announced Thursday that the NCAA has suspended five football players for the first five games of the 2011 season for selling items and accepting improper benefits. A sixth football player will miss the 2011 season opener for receiving discounted services, a violation of NCAA rules.
These aren't just any players. The list included four starters -- quarterback Terrelle Pryor, running back Dan "Boom" Herron, receiver DeVier Posey and left tackle Mike Adams -- as well as reserve defensive lineman Solomon Thomas. Linebacker Jordan Whiting, a redshirt freshman, is the player who will miss only the first game next fall.
Wow. Huge news indeed.
The twist is that all the players will be eligible for the upcoming Allstate Sugar Bowl matchup against Arkansas. According to Kevin Lennon, the NCAA's vice president of academic and membership affairs, the players are allowed to participate in the Sugar Bowl based on several factors, which include "the acknowledgment the student-athletes did not receive adequate rules education during the time period the violations occurred."
From Ohio State's news release:
NCAA policy allows suspending withholding penalties for a championship or bowl game if it was reasonable at the time the student-athletes were not aware they were committing violations, along with considering the specific circumstances of each situation. In addition, there must not be any competitive advantage related to the violations, and the student-athletes must have eligibility remaining.
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. In this instance, the facts are consistent with the established policy, Lennon said.
Hmmm. This seems like a very creative way for the NCAA to defer punishment.
Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith contends that the players were only specifically educated on the consequences of selling items in November 2009, after they had committed the violations. Players cannot sell items given to them by the university while still eligible, but they can sell them after their eligibility is up.
"We were not explicit with these young men that you could not resell items that we give you," Smith said. "We began to be more explicit in November 2009."
Ohio State will appeal the NCAA's decision in hopes of getting the number of games reduced for the suspended players. This case sounds very similar to what happened with Georgia receiver A.J. Green, who received a four-game suspension for selling his bowl jersey. I wouldn't be surprised to see the suspensions reduced from five games to four.
There's a lot to discuss, so I'm going to break things up into categories:
SMITH'S ECONOMIC ARGUMENT
Smith said the players sold championship rings and other items to help their families during a rough economic time. While not condoning players' actions, Smith said they went into the decisions "with the right intent, to help their families."
This situation certainly refuels the debate about whether college players should be paid -- Ohio State safety Jermale Hines defended his teammates here and here -- but it's a tough argument for Smith to win. Pryor and his teammates get a lot of perks simply for being Ohio State football players, not the least of which is a free education. And they're certainly not the only people in Columbus dealing with a tough economy.
While a lot of folks are jumping on the tattoo thing, this situation was about money.
"The discount on tattoos is not as big as the other pieces," Smith said. "The cash was relative to family needs. The bigger violation is the cash."
I don't buy the fact that the players didn't know that their actions violated NCAA rules. Smith and the other Ohio State officials can fall on their sword as much as they want, but these guys had to know the consequences.
THE NFL QUESTION
Before Thursday's announcement, Ohio State didn't seem like a team that would be heavily impacted by juniors entering the NFL draft.
That has changed.
Four of the five players receiving the stiffest penalties -- Pryor, Herron, Posey and Adams -- are candidates to go pro after the bowl game. I had heard Herron was the likeliest to do so, but he'll probably have some company. I just can't see all of these players coming back to miss what likely will be at least one third of their senior seasons.
“I’m not sure this would be the most advantageous time to have a job interview," coach Jim Tressel said.
That's true to an extent, but I doubt it's enough to keep players in Columbus, especially if they can finish their careers with a Sugar Bowl championship.
Whether or not there's an exodus, Ohio State will be impacted by these suspensions in 2011. The first five games aren't too severe -- Akron, Toledo, at Miami, Colorado, Michigan State -- but Pryor's absence will loom large, and the same goes for Adams, who really came on strong.
The worst part of this mess is what the Ohio State players sold to the individual now under federal investigation.
It's one thing to sell a jersey or a pair of cleats. Those are individual things. But selling Big Ten championship rings and Gold Pants (given to Ohio State players for beating archrival Michigan) won't sit well with Buckeyes fans. Pryor, Adams, Posey and Solomon sold their 2008 Big Ten championship rings, while Pryor and Solomon sold their Gold Pants from the 2008 Michigan game.
Those are items won as a team. They're special. They're integral to Ohio State football and what it stands for.
"I suppose the older you are, the more you understand the difficulty of what’s gone into having a chance to earn those things," Tressel said. "I don’t know what's in the minds of a 19-year-old. It might be, 'I'm going to win four more of these, so I’m going to help out at home [by selling] this one.'"
It will be interesting to see how Ohio State fans view the players after finding out what they sold.
Ohio State reconvenes as a team Sunday and will fly to New Orleans on Wednesday. Today's announcement certainly could be a distraction, or it could bring the team closer together.
Smith sounded confident this incident is isolated to these players and to the individual under investigation. This isn't a criminal case or one related to agents or boosters. The person under investigation isn't connected with Ohio State.
"There are no other NCAA violations around this case," Smith said. "We do not have a systemic problem in our program.
Tressel said it's good he'll have a few days at home to think about the situation before seeing the players on Sunday.
"These guys feel terrible," Tressel said. "If you said go run 50 miles before you come to practice tomorrow, they would go run 50 miles."
The players likely won't face further disciplinary action from Ohio State. Their focus will turn to the bowl game, in which they're amazingly allowed to participate. The NCAA certainly will take more heat than Ohio State in this case.
What a day in Columbus. Stay tuned for more.