Apple's Seedlings

It seems that there has been a rash of athletes and teams in many sports and at different levels of play who have been accused of violating the rules of competition.  It is particularly newsworthy when the accusation includes a head coach or field manager.  Many players and coaches have been penalized recently in various ways for their alleged infractions.  And it is suspected by many that we are seeing just the tip of an iceberg.  One of the common defenses for an athlete or team caught with their hand in the cookie jar is, "Well, everyone else does it.  We would lose if we don't meet them on the terms they use."  Other justifications include, "We misinterpreted the rules and thought what we did was okay," "We did everything according to the rules - the accusations are just malcontents and competitors trying to get us into trouble," and "What we did was trivial compared to what others have done.  You should go after the 'real' cheaters." 

Is all this kind of conduct "unsportsmanship."  Perhaps it would be proper to define this term here.  For the sake of our discussion, let's say that "unsportsmanship" is behavior contrary to accepted sports protocol or rules.  This is a little vague, since what is accepted sports protocol in ne sport or region may not be so in another.  Likewise, rules for a given sport may well be different for different organizations which maintain the sport.  For example, a Little League runner returning to irst base from third after a foul ball may well go directly across he diamond without criticism.  That same player, a few years later when reaching the major leagues, presumably now knows that to run cross the pitcher's mound and its vicinity is a major gaffe. Since the definition is so fluid, it can be difficult for a participant toknow all the ways that things should be done.  When a player is ignorant of protocol, that player might be excused the first time that protocol is violated.  Any future occurrence of that violation of protocol is likely to be met with harsh treatment from opponents and teammates alike.  There is an implication that every player has made an effort to become familiar with both the official rules and unofficial protocol of the sport and that any violation of the protocols is "unsportsmanship. 

Examples of unsportsmanship include blatant violation of published rules (cheating), pushing published rules to their limit and beyond, and being a bad player (winner, or loser).  Unsportsmanship also includes their unacceptable behavior by performer or spectator.  Incidents in the NFL, for example,  have ranged from perceived lack of proper
acknowledgment after a game (49ers/Lions), to spying on opponents practice sessions (Patriots), to offering bounties for injuring apponents (Saints).  A special case of unsportmanship is "legal unsportmanship" which is that part of unsportsmanship which is a violation of published rules - including the laws of the society in which the sports event takes place.

The Saints bounty mentioned above is in this category--along with violating eligibility rules (USC), pushing rules beyond their limit (Michigan), false testimony to a sports overseer (Ohio State), and overing-up other unsportsmanship activity (Penn State). If it seems that college and professional American football is the only culprit, it is only because it is the most visible to people in the S.  Issues of performance-enhancing substances have been quite prevalent in track and field, in cycling, and in baseball among othercompetitions.  Auto-racing has suffered problems due to some individuals and teams enhancing cars or fuel in unacceptable ways.  Followers of baseball recall the "Black Sox" scandal of a century ago and of pitchers using "foreign substances" to enhance their pitching prowess.  No sport is free of efforts by participants and spectators who want to create an advantage in an unacceptable way. 

Some of the phrases used to justify unsportsmanship are given above.  But they are only the rationale to justify this kind of behavior to others.  The underlying motivation may well be quite different.  Principle among the reasons why people and teams cheat is to gain a
competitive advantage. (or to defend oneself against an opponent's perceived or anticipated attempt to gain an advantage in this way). 

Despite the efforts of coaches of Little League baseball and Peewee hockey to instill a sense of fair play and sportsmanship in their charges, sooner or later those players will be confronted with the "big game" in which they (perhaps along with some of their teammates) feel that increasing their chances of winning may justify unsportsmanship.  By no means will all succumb to the temptation--indeed, it is remarkable how many competitors emerge from such pressures with their integrity intact.  But some will fall victim.  Others will learn--or think that they have learned--that losing to an unsportsmanship player or team is unacceptable.  This will make it a little easier for them to forgo their principles the next time around. 

The rewards for winning are emotional, of course.  In many cases, specifically including amateur athletics, they are also physical and fiduciary.  Common themes that emerged during the past score of years of major league baseball were the PED issues, the "spitball" issues, and the spying issues.  There was a covert theme in baseball that it was okay to cheat as long as you didn't get caught-indeed it was the smart thing to do.  The sin was not in cheating.  The sin was being seen doing it--getting caught red-handed so to speak.  Baseball is seen by many today, at least at the upper levels, as a game in which anything goes--anything at all--as long as it is kept successfully hidden. 

Even those with extensive training in ethical conduct at an academic level may find a real encounter of moral choices difficult to evaluate.  What you learn at your desk may not always translate into the real world with ease.  What would you do, for example, if you caught your younger brother cheating in a Little League game?  Or if you overheard one of your college's football players relate how they stole the opposing teams' offensive signals.  Would you report it?  Or to take an example outside athletics, would you report your family to the IRS if you found that it had filed an intentionally fraudulent income tax report?  During 2010-2011, there were several universities whose athletes and coaches were caught up in such issues. 

We will take a close look at two of them:  Ohio State University and Pennsylvania State University.  There are strong parallels in what happened at these two institutions-and also some equally strong differences.  Both involve the football programs and a failure to monitor activity which was against the rules.  Both involved coaches who were respected for honor and integrity and who knew of the infractions-but did not take action to stop them.  In one case there were apparently some efforts to report the instance to higher authority, but meager and halfhearted at best. 

The causes were different in the two cases.  At Ohio State, players were benefiting from selling or trading property they were not entitled to under the rules.  This is not the place to argue whether the rules are fair, but the players agreed to obey the rules when they accepted the benefits of playing football for Ohio State.  Apparently many among the coaching staff knew of the violations, but efforts to bring the activity into compliance with the rules were feeble-if indeed they existed at all.  At Penn State, there was an assistant on the coaching staff who apparently engaged in pedophile activities--in part using university facilities to do so.  This was illegal activity in Pennsylvania (and in all other states as well).  There was likely an occurrence where an incident of unacceptable conduct was discovered and reported to the head coach.  It is probable that the report of the incident used words as free of negative connotations and emotions as possible (in other words, "polite" language).  The coach in turn passed the information onto the athletic director in even vaguer terms.  The upshot seems to be that no one in the line of responsibility took the report to mean that anything serious had actually occurred.


The two coaches involved in theseincidents-Jim Tressel at Ohio State and Joe Paterno at PennState-were recognized as being the essence of high character inboth their personal and professional lives.  They were both loyal totheir athletic programs, to their institutions, to their players, andto their sport.  To put it another way, they were "clean" inevery sense of the word.  Yet they became embroiled in some of thedirtiest events that have occurred recently in college football.  Both were vilified for their role in the events which unfolded aroundthem and suffered loss of reputation and loss of job because of theiractions (or lack thereof). 

What brought these two role models to this end?  What could possibly motivate an honest and honorable person to leave the path he or she knows to be correct?  I submit that this question is more important than the question of the events which led to their activities.  For when we learn more about how good people can stumble, we learn more about the dynamics of sports, the general interactions of people, and (incidentally) more about ourselves. 

The issue is quite complicated, of course.  In an effort to try to understand the root forces acting upon these two individuals, it will be necessary to omit many factors.  Some of these factors will likely have also had a significant impact on the situation and also to the way others reacted to the situation.  Thus the following description is not to be taken as a full analysis nor a psychological report.  It is simply an attempt to understand what happened to cause two respected role models to act inconsistently with their own values. 

We have already introduced the two primary issues that I think influenced their actions.  These are that they had never really experienced "naked" unacceptable actions of this sort before outside a theoretical consideration.  Also, they had loyalties which were not compatible with the situations they encountered.  They were both torn-and torn  badly-between dealing with a situation they were not prepared for on the one hand and of potentially violating a "sacred" loyalty on the other. 

Much of the situation involving Jim Tressel is taken from the Sports Illustrated article of June 6, 2011 by George Dohrmann and David Epstein.  Ohio State players were obtaining articles of sports value from Ohio State Athletics Department which the rules specified they were not entitled to since it was considered "compensation" and thus violated the amateur status of the players.  They then sold these articles or traded them for goods and/or services-an act which was also in violation of the NCAA rules for collegiate amateur athletes. 

The NCAA suspected that such acts had occurred by reports from previous investigative journalism by sports-oriented magazines, cable networks, and internet sites.  Specific details were found to have occurred and Ohio State was sanctioned by the NCAA.  Since it was (apparently) felt that the infractions were not "major," the penalties were not seen as severe.  And there the story would have ended except for one thing. 

NCAA institutions must file forms with the NCAA stating that they are in compliance with NCAA rules.  This is particularly important for an NCAA institution which has encountered sanctions and/or penalties from the NCAA.  Most schools have a compliance group to oversee this activity and the reporting of it, but the forms must be signed by those with official oversight responsibility of the programs.  In the case of Head Coach Jim Tressel, he signed the notarized statement to the NCAA that the program was in compliance.  Not only was the program not in compliance, but Tressel knew that it was not.  He had, in effect, commuted perjury. 

Why Tressel signed an official document swearing to things he knew to be untrue is not known.  For those who knew him, it was completely inconsistent with his general character.  Tressel has accepted the responsibility for his actions but has never really explained why he did them. 

Many commentators have proposed some of the reasons we have mentioned previously.  These people suggest that perhaps Tressel felt that this kind of thing was common and that it did not constitute a violation of NCAA rules.  Perhaps Tressel got caught up in the collegiate competition and felt failure to prevent and report illegal activity was necessary to sustain Ohio State's status among the football elite.  Perhaps, it is suggested, Tressel did not really read the document he signed-but acted on the advice of others.  Perhaps . . . 

None of the suggestions above or made elsewhere make sense to me.  My impression was that Jim Tressel was too conscientious and too honest to have lost his bearings in the ways proposed.  But then, what could have been the reason that Tressel did what he did?  What could have caused him to lose his way after walking the line all his previous life? 

It is my feeling that he was confronted with what he saw to be the ultimate unsolvable problem.  He had a loyalty to the NCAA even if he did not agree with all its rules.  The NCAA said that even violations like selling or trading "trinkets" was a punishable offense.  On the other hand he had loyalty-a very strong one-to college football in general and to the Ohio State football program in particular.  The loyalties were in conflict.  There seemed only one way to go.  Take the lesser of two evils.  Certify that the football program was in compliance.  I think he saw it to be essentially so.  A few minor transgression could effectively be ignored compared to the problems the program had already faced and considering future penalties as well.  I believe it personally hurt Tressel morally to do this, but it would have hurt him more to have altered his report and actions so as to reflect his knowledge. 

Loyalty is a funny emotion.  We see it at work when it comes to nation, region, family, church, workplace, school, and in other contexts.  Even among criminals, "stooling" or "ratting" is unacceptable.  Stool pigeons and whistleblowers are traitors of the highest order.  Loyalty to a school or an athletic program goes back at least two centuries in the US and much further back in countries with older cultures.  The mildest punishment for disloyalty in any culture is ostracism, the most severe is death-frequently in very painful ways. 

The emotion of loyalty is stressed by those institutions which depend on it.  It motivates soldiers to fight, alumni to contribute, and political blocs to have a voice.  Ben Franklin recognized this when in the early days of formulating the American Revolution he said, "We must all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately."  Loyalty certainly has its place among human culture-for both good and bad. 

And so, I think it likely that the only way that Tressel could see to get out of the bind he was in and to resolve his loyalties was to determine which loyalty was dominant for him.  It really seemed to be a case of "all or nothing," there was no "half and half" option as he saw it.  When it came to crunch time, he really felt that he had no choice.  He was aware that he was lying, and it was against everything he believed in to do so.  But-as he saw it-the only other option was even worse. 

I have heard people argue that all football programs do this kind of thing, but just Ohio State (and perhaps a few others) get caught.  There may indeed be many other programs which do these kinds of things but have not yet been caught.  But I think there are also many programs who make an honest effort to follow the rules-no matter how stupid they think those rules are.  The argument that "everyone else does it, we just got caught" does not make any headway with me. 

ButI do have some empathy for Jim Tressel.  It  might be easy for this Wolverine to excoriate that Buckeye for what he did.  And I have no question but that what he did was wrong-very wrong.  There does seem to me, however,  to be more to it than that.  The issue that Tressel and others have faced is whether it was really so wrong to defend the program to which he was commuted.  The general feeling is that it was.  But that went against the grain of someone like Tressel who grew up in the tradition of loyalty to nation, family, church, school--and football. 

The world is now different than when Tressel learned to be an adult.  He is now in a different situation and loyalties now should be differently defined than when he learned them.  Perhaps we can all learn from the situation he was caught in that sometimes life seems to leave us little choice.  It may be necessary to betray one loyalty to be true to another.  And figuring out which loyalty to be true to is not easy for someone who values both deeply. 


While he situation of Joe Paterno at Penn State is radically different in many ways from that of Jim Tressel, it had similarities with it as well.  Paterno, too, had a classic loyalty to his school and program.  He, too, had values of integrity and honor.  And he, too, was caught in a position of conflict of loyalties.  A good source of information for those who wish to see more detail and context is given at

One of his former assistant coaches was also a friend.  JoePa got reports from another source that this friend was seen "abusing" a boy in the shower room.  The person who passed this information on to Paterno apparently used very mild language to describe an act which apparently both he and Paterno believed to be indescribable.  Paterno was concerned and passed the information to his athletic director, using even milder words.  He apparently attempted to reference something which he could not describe directly.  Nothing came of the report.  Neither Paterno nor anyone else did anything to address the situation until years later when the original reporter, apparently guilt-ridden, went public.  

It was then that we began to see the same kind of loyalty conflict apparent in Joe Paterno that we have described in Jim Tressel.  There was the dedication to the team, to the school, and to the sport.  JoePa would be a traitor to all this if he had been more aggressive in dealing with the incident, or at least more aggressive in reporting it.  Paterno had the same kind of terrible choice to make that Tressel had to make.  He chose another option than Tressel did, but it was one which might only have been proper for an earlier age.  It was one inappropriate for his time and culture.  He chose to do nothing other than to pass a mild version of the information along. 

In a sense though, it was really not a "choice."  He is quoted after the incident became public as saying, "I wish I had done more.  I didn't know what to do!"  I believe that is true.  He was paralyzed into inaction by events way beyond his experience and even really beyond his comprehension.  His choice was to either betray his loyalty to the team or his loyalty to human decency.  It was a choice beyond his power to make.  Like an animal frozen by fear as a predator bears down on him, Paterno saw no viable moves he could make.  Everything he might do was unthinkable.  He was caught in a trap as securely as any animal. 


Both the story of Jim Tressel and the story of Joe Paterno are still ongoing.  Tressel was fired by (or resigned from or retired from) Ohio State and effectively banned from college football for a time by the NCAA.  Joe Paterno was fired (er, make that retired) by Penn State and shortly thereafter was diagnosed with a fatal cancer.  Ohio State and Tressel have faced their past and have begun healing for the future.  Tressel might be back someday but his career will never be what it once was. 

Penn State has yet to find out the full nature of its consequences.  The case of the assistant who acted "inappropriately" is now in the hands of the legal authorities.  And Paterno will only be back in our memories.  The athletic programs at the two universities have also suffered.  The scarlet and gray may have endured the worst, losing players to suspension and to the NFL.  The 2011 season was a disaster for a team that had recently appeared in two BCS National Championship games.  It even suffered being soundly beaten by its archrival to the north.  Penn State had its moments trying to overcome its stigma.  It would be pushing the concept, however, to call it a "good" season for the blue and white.

The demons which handicapped Tressel and Paterno are ones which we all face.  Perhaps Robert E. Lee put it best when he said of the concept of loyalty, "Virginia!  May she always be right.  But Virginia! Right or Wrong!"  Jim Tressel and Joe Paterno said essentially the same thing, "My university, my team.  May they always be right.  But my team, right or wrong!"

There may be situations where loyalty to a nation, region, culture, organization, or way of thinking might supersede loyalty to humanity  I, for one, would not criticize either Jim Tressel or Joe Paterno for making the mistakes they made.  I hope that I have learned from what they did.  I hope I have learned to make the right choices in similar conflict situations.  And whether I have learned the right lessons or not, I can respect those two as fellow human beings. 

Jim Tressel and Joe Paterno, I salute you.  Not as perfect people, but as fellow humans caught in a swamp not of your own making.  You are not gods, but neither are you devils.

September 1, 2012  07:15 PM ET

WOW! Excellent stuff my man. Reminds me of our politicians too. I have a question though. What's the difference between a player finding a part time job and getting paid, or signing some jerseys and getting paid?

September 2, 2012  02:55 PM ET

Thanks WDT for you comment. There are differences, of course, including motivation for the various activities. But they are both forbitten by the definition of "amateur" as defined by the NCAA and most other sports federations. The sanctions for the two activities might be different reflecting the perceived difference in seriousness.

September 3, 2012  02:43 PM ET

Hey can you tell me how you put spaces between your paragraphs and bolded and such? I don't know why but my blogs will not separate and they are just a blob. I put spaces and indent but it does nothing. Is there something I am supposed to type so it indents or puts spaces between lines? Thank you for your time.

September 3, 2012  03:13 PM ET

Thanks WDT for you comment. There are differences, of course, including motivation for the various activities. But they are both forbitten by the definition of "amateur" as defined by the NCAA and most other sports federations. The sanctions for the two activities might be different reflecting the perceived difference in seriousness.

I find it hard to believe that a student athlete, trying to make ends meet by working, would get in trouble for doing something logical to help his financial situation.

September 3, 2012  03:14 PM ET

Hey can you tell me how you put spaces between your paragraphs and bolded and such? I don't know why but my blogs will not separate and they are just a blob. I put spaces and indent but it does nothing. Is there something I am supposed to type so it indents or puts spaces between lines? Thank you for your time.

Switch from Google Chrome to Internet Explorer. That worked for me.

September 3, 2012  06:42 PM ET

Menua, I switched from Firefox to IE, but then had to do some editing after pasting. In the SI editmode, an "Enter" or "Return" inserts a paragraph edit. IE also copied and pasted the bold from my text, but it is also possible to accomplish display features by using HTML inserts.

WDT, you have a point on college athletes earning money. But the NCAA feels that college athletes are already highly compensated by their "scholarships." It is not money in their pocket, but does represent minimally $40,000 and maybe two or three times that if living expenses are thrown in.

I'm not saying the present system is right. In some ways it is skewed against the athlete and in some ways it is skewed in favor of the athlete. I personally think it needs an overhaul to level the playing field for everyone.

Why not, for example, do away with athletic scholarships and then allow the student-athlete to earn support like all other students? (Ha!)

September 3, 2012  09:35 PM ET

Thank you both.

September 18, 2012  03:56 PM ET

Loyalty and sportsmanship are two fascinating concepts, Appleseed. They're taught to all of us, from our youth first tentatively trying out sports to our later lives living vicariously as fans (some more active with their personal fitness than others), as the core values of why we compete. Yet they're vacuous, subjective concepts upon which we can never firmly plant our finger.

Intriguing thoughts. I really appreciate the effort you've put forth to present them!


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