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by Chris Brown
Major - Stories of NCAA Scandals

Tattoo Gate

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Introduction

Hello folks, welcome to the inaugural episode of Major – Stories of NCAA Scandals. In this show we will be covering the most gripping, gruesome, and groundbreaking scandals in the history of the NCAA. My name is Chris Brown and I’ll be your host, guiding you through every twist and turn these stories have to offer.

For the last nine years, I’ve worked in NCAA Rules and Regulations, including four years on the NCAA staff.

If you are anything like me, you love a good sports scandal. I started Major, as a way of exploring both well-known and unknown NCAA scandals. But enough about me, let’s start the show.

Today we’ll be covering two of the most controversial subjects in all of college athletics: The Ohio State Buckeyes and NCAA amateurism.

So where do these two meet?

How did it happen and who was involved?

To answer that we’re taking you all the way back to Columbus, Ohio, 2010, for the infamous scandal aptly titled: Tattoo Gate.

Cue tattoo music

It’s January 1st, 2010. The Ohio State Buckeyes are celebrating their 26-17 victory over the University of Oregon to win the Rose Bowl. Star quarterback, Terrell Pryor had been named the most valuable player after passing for 266 yards and rushing for another 72 yards. We will learn a lot more about Mr. Pryor in a bit.

Spirits could not have been higher in Columbus. The team had a renewed energy led by their sweater vest wearing coach: Jim Tressel. Since Coach Tressel’s arrival at Ohio State in 2001, the team had realized massive success. Including a 2002 National Championship win in only Tressel’s second season as head coach.

As the 2010 season approached, the Buckeyes were ranked second in the nation and poised to make a run at a national championship. However, whatever hopes the Buckeyes had for national championship glory, would be quickly derailed on April 2nd, 2010.

Email Noise

On April 2nd, Coach Jim Tressel received an email from local attorney: Chris Cicero. Now communication between Tressel and Cicero was not abnormal. Cicero had been a walk-on football player for OSU while Tressel was an assistant coach in the mid-80s. However, Cicero’s message would be that of a warning.

Cicero had been approached by Eddie Rife. Rife was the owner of Fine Line Ink Tattoos in Columbus. Cicero and Rife had previously interacted when Cicero represented Rife in an investigation.

According to Cicero’s email to Tressel, Rife’s home had been raided by the federal government on suspicion of drug trafficking. In the midst of the raid, federal officials seized $70,000 in cash and a significant amount of Ohio State Memorabilia, including championship rings.

Cicero would go on to warn Coach Tressel that his players had been given free or discounted tattoos in exchange for signed memorabilia. Cicero even went into detail about Rife’s checkered history with the law, which included convictions for forgery and involvement in a murder investigation.

Tressel responded accordingly stating: “Thanks Chris…..I will get on it ASAP …Happy Easter to you as well! Go Bucks!! Jt”

Now you might be thinking to yourself, what’s the big deal? Yes, the players should probably steer clear of Eddie Rife, but why can’t they sell their memorabilia?

Well to answer that question, we have to dive into the complex world of NCAA Legislation.

Quick NCAA Rules Lesson

Name, image and Likeness! No three words spark more conversation when it comes to college athletics today. Even if you aren’t a sports fan, you have probably heard rumblings about the topic.

To break it down simply, in order to participate at an NCAA school, an athlete must be an amateur. Now we could discuss the roots of amateurism, but we can do that another day.

What matters is that to maintain one’s amateur status, an athlete cannot receive more than actual and necessary expenses for participation. Practically speaking, that means that athletes are able to receive tuition, room and board, books and a small stipend for the cost of attendance. However, they cannot receive compensation past that amount.

Now to further maintain amateurism, a college athlete cannot profit off of their name, image or likeness. For example, under current NCAA rules, a collegiate athlete could not sell their autograph for money. This prohibition extends to any benefit brought in as a result of their status as an athlete.

It’s not uncommon for these rules to be broken with famous violations ranging from Reggie Bush at USC, to Michigan’s Fab Five.

The regulations surrounding amateur compensation through benefits or money has been a hot topic in the NCAA for years. Many argue these players are bringing in serious cash that they should see a part of. Others argue that college sports are built on a foundation of amateur athletics and the influence of money could destroy that.

Either way, one of the biggest teams in college football, found themselves smack dab in the middle of this issue.

Flashforward

Now let’s go ahead and jump to the 2010 season, the Buckeye’s lived up to their always high expectations. The team went 11 and 1, taking a share of the Big Ten Championship and would be making an appearance in the Sugar Bowl to play the University of Arkansas.

However, things were about to take a turn for the worse. On December 7th, 2010, the Ohio State office of legal affairs received a letter from the Department of Justice regarding football memorabilia seized during a federal investigation. Sound familiar?

The letter included a list of the memorabilia items and how they were obtained. The items included Big Ten Conference Championship rings, trophies and uniform items. The purpose of the letter was "to make certain that neither the institution nor the players involved claim any ownership interest in the items being seized."

University official quickly met with the athletes in question and began interviewing athletics personnel about the alleged violations.

At the front of this headline was star quarterback Terelle Pryor. Now the word star may be a bit of an understatement. Coming into Ohio State, Pryor was ranked the number one overall football recruit in the nation. Highly recruited in both basketball and football, Pryor was the definition of a dual-threat. Pryor even was ranked higher than future NFL superstars Julio Jones, A.J. Green, and Andrew Luck.

Pryor’s success easily translated at the next level. Over the course of three years, Pryor had amassed over 6.000 passing yards and 74 touchdowns but now, he was at the center of controversy that threatened to end his career as a Buckeye.

Along with Pryor were running back Dan “Boom” Herron, wide receiver DeVier Posey, offensive tackle Mike Adams, defensive end Solomon Thomas, and Linebacker Jordan Whiting.

After confirming the violations, Ohio State reported the violations to the NCAA and sought reinstatement for the athletes.

Pryor, Herron, Posey, Adams and Thomas were suspended from the first five games of the season but were permitted to play in the Sugar Bowl, due in part to a lack of education provided by the athletics department.

Along with the suspension, Pryor was forced to pay $2,500 for the sale for his 2008 fiesta bowl sportsmanship award, Big 10 championship ring, and gold trinket pants awarded to players that beat Michigan.

Dan Herron, was forced to pay $1,150 dollars for the sale of jersey’s, pants, and shoes, alongside the discounted tattoo’s amounting to $150.

Wide Receiver DeVier Posey was forced to pay $1,250 for the sale of his championship ring and discounted tattoos.

Offensive tackle Mike Adams, defensive end Solomon Thomas, and linebacker Jordan Whiting all received similar penalties, with Whiting receiving the lowest form of consequences with his suspension shifting to only one game with a $150 donation to charity.

Tattoogate - The Coach

Interestingly enough, the most controversial part of this scandal wasn’t even the actions of the players. What really made this become an eye-catcher among the public was the actions of Jim Tressel.

Remember when Coach Tressel said he would “get on it ASAP?” Well…not quite.

You see, the day after Tressel received the email notification of potential violations, rather than send them to the athletics director or compliance officer, Tressel forwarded the message to Ted Sarniakm, personal advisor to Tressel’s star quarterback: Terrel Pryor.

Now Tressel would exchange four additional messages with Cicero during the summer of 2010, with Cicero continually warning Tressel of Rife’s potential negative influence on athletes at OSU.

While Tressel would acknowledge brief conversations with the players in question, at no point did he directly discuss or advise against player interaction with Rife or the alleged violations.

To make matters worse, in September of 2010, Tressel signed a document confirming he had reported any and all violations to the university’s compliance office when in fact, he had not. This lie by omission would later haunt Tressel.

Initially, when the violations emerged in December, publicly, these violations were defended by Coach Jim Tressel, with him stating the money was used to support the players families in a harsh economic climate.

Some felt this claim was a bit contradictory to the truth with the headline of the story being the purchasing of tattoos, something that was later once again defended by Tressel, with him stating the bulk of the benefits came from the sale of memorabilia, with that money going towards family support.

Tressel himself would soon become the center of the scandal. Head Coach Jim Tressel, one of the most decorated coaches in Ohio State history at the time.

When the allegations came out in December of 2010, Tressel pretended to have no knowledge of the events that transpired. Tressel’s denial, changed in April of 2011 when details of his inaction began to surface.

It became known that Tressel had talked with players and learned of the violations yet chose not to come forward to the NCAA or Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith.

OSU learned of Tressel's inaction and released the information in March of 2011. Tressel initially a received a $250,000 fine and two game suspension at the start of the next season. To demonstrate solidarity with his players, Coach Tressel would request that his suspension be increased to five games.

While seemingly the end of it, Tattoogate would prove to be the ultimate downfall of this acclaimed coach, something we’ll cover as we dive deeper into the aftermath and repercussions of the scandal.

Repercussions - The Team

Beyond the players and head coach, the NCAA Committee on Infractions further sanctioned the entire Ohio State football program following the Tattoo Gate scandal. These sanctions included a one-year ban on postseason play, including conference championships, something that would prove to be a catalyst in an uneventful 2011 season for the Buckeyes.

The Buckeyes also lost out on three scholarships yearly from 2011 to 2014. In addition, the NCAA allowed for players to transfer to a different school without facing the usual formality of sitting out a whole year. This made it attractive to second or third string players who could make an impact on a different team but did not want to sit out.

Further penalties included a three-year probation, forfeiting revenue sharing totaling $338,811 for the 2011 Sugar Bowl, and all 2010 wins vacated, including the Big 10 Championship and Sugar Bowl.

Repercussions - The Coach

Originally starting as a fine and suspension, the repercussions of Tatoogate for head coach Jim Tressel only seemed to spiral, ending in what seems to be the conclusion of his career coaching football at the highest collegiate level.

The stain to his reputation led to public pressure from fans and the media for further action by the Ohio State athletics program. However, when asked about potential termination of Coach Tressel, University President Gordon Gee stated: “No, are you kidding? ... I'm just hoping the coach doesn't dismiss me.” A joke that was not well received given the circumstances.

Ultimately, in May of 2011 Tressel resigned from the Ohio State football team after ten seasons.

On top of this, Tressel later received a five-year show-cause penalty, essentially barring him from a job in college football for half a decade and putting the final axe to his coaching career.

Ohio State, while losing one of their most renowned coaches, actually used the scandal and resignation of Tressel to their advantage, landing coaching legend Urban Meyer as his replacement. Meyer, who had been on leave from coaching at the time, stated he had not planned on and would not have returned to coaching that season had it not been for the opening in Columbus. Meyer would lead the team to the 2014 National Championship before retiring in December of 2018.

After a brief stint with the Indianapolis Colts, Jim Tressel now serves as the President of Youngstown State University, the same school he started his career as a head coach.

Shortly after Tressel’s resignation, rumors of additional violations on the part of Terrel Pryor began to emerge. After refusing to participate in further investigations, Pryor would leave the OSU in June of 2011 and opt to enter the NFL Supplemental Draft being picked up by the Oakland Raiders.

While Pryor did not materialize as a consistent NFL starter at quarterback, he found his role as a wide receiver in the NFL to be fruitful. Although a free agent, Pryor seems poised to come back for another NFL season.

Pryors co-violators would all return to Ohio State the following year and enjoy breif careers in in the NFL and CFL.

As for Eddie Rife, he spent three years in federal prison for intent to distribute and money laundering convictions. Finally, remember Chris Cisnero? The lawyer who tipped off Coach Tressel? Well he actually had his law license suspended for informing coach Tressel about Rife’s legal case and would later be disbarred for additional misconduct in 2019.

Closing Thoughts

So should student-athletes get paid? This is a question that’s been circulating college athletics from the very start. While many believe money brings in problems, problems that would ultimately bring a negative impact to the NCAA, others argue it’s unfair to profit off of these players while they do not realize any of the profits.

Now fast forward to around 8 years after Tattoo Gate, and the NCAA made an announcement in 2019 that they will pursue legislation to allow players to benefit financially off their name, image, or likeness.

Hearing this makes you want to question the true significance of Tattoo Gate. A coach was given a show-cause penalty, a storied program was forced to vacate wins and championships, and players were forced to sit out over something that could potentially be legal very soon.

Conclusion

So there you have it, a full-blown scandal, from players to coaches, to the very core of what makes the world go round: money; Tatoogate exemplifies the current controversy of amateur athletics.

We here at Major – Stories of NCAA Scandals hope you enjoyed our first episode covering the world of NCAA scandals.

If you want to keep it going, give us a follow on our social media at brown_athletics on twitter or major podcast on Instagram.

Thank you everyone for tuning in, again I’m your host Chris Brown wishing you a good day and life free of scandal!

Sources

https://www.forbes.com/sites/sportsmoney/2011/12/21/top-10-lessons-from-ohio-states-tattoo-gate/#6ee1c42d390d

https://bleacherreport.com/articles/719411-scandal-at-ohio-state-part-1-of-5-the-tattooed-five-tressels-cover-up

https://law.marquette.edu/national-sports-law-institute/tattoogate-january-10-2012

https://www.espn.com/college-football/news/story?id=5950873

https://www.thelantern.com/2012/06/breaking-it-down-tattoo-gate-scandal-costs-ohio-state-almost-8m/

https://web3.ncaa.org/lsdbi/search/miCaseView/report?id=102374

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Episode 1

by Chris Brown