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Urban Meyer And The Culture Of Paralysis

Staff Columnist
Posted Nov 28, 2011


Urban Meyer will win national championships at Ohio State, as long as his health holds up and Shelley Meyer supports him. What’s truly worth reflecting on – far more than the football implications of this story – is something which transcends college football and the larger realm of sports.


The football implications of Urban Meyer’s move to Ohio State are clear: The Buckeyes are ready to rock and roll once again. The coaching matchup with Brady Hoke is going to make the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry a must-see in college football over the next several years. The Big Ten’s two signature football programs have endured very difficult times, but not for very long… their foremost troubles are over. What’s far more interesting in the immediate aftermath of this not-very-surprising announcement is something which applies to the whole of American culture, not just college football.

Allow me to begin this reflection by saying that Ohio State fans – who have endured a brutal year – should be happy. Truly. As the years go by and I accumulate more experience in handling the give-and-take of online discussions with CFN readers, what emerges for me is a very simple truth: Fans don’t like being beaten up. More specifically, they don’t like being put in positions in which they are told to feel guilty about the good things that happen to their teams. The arts of news analysis and editorial commentary are intricate, but they also demand authoritative writing styles and a firmness of voice which will unavoidably create the impression in the mind of the fan that “We’re under attack and being made to feel guilty for what we have. Screw the mainstream media. They’re all out to get us and bring us down.” It’s therefore important to tell Ohio State fans – at the beginning of this reflection rather than at the end of it – that they should not feel guilty about having Urban Meyer as their head football coach today. College football is a central source of uplift and passion in a lot of lives – in Ohio and dozens of other states – that can use a ray of sunshine amidst difficult economic times and a period of pronounced uncertainty in our nation’s history. Trust me when I say that Ohio State fans should embrace this moment and enjoy it with absolutely no reservations or inhibitions.

Obviously, you know that a shift to a larger realm of discussion is coming. You know that I didn’t sit down at my computer just to wish Ohio State fans well.

What needs to be discussed in the wake of Ohio State’s hiring of Urban Meyer should have nothing to do with the attitude of Ohio State’s fan base. To be more precise, a commentary on this situation should not be seen as an attack on Ohio State’s fans. One must hasten to note that Ohio State’s year of scandal received exponentially more national media coverage than the misdeeds at Oregon, North Carolina, and Central Florida, all while the events at Miami and Penn State (and, beyond football, Syracuse) gave the tattoos and the memorabilia dealings of the “Tat Five” an appropriately trivial amount of weight. Ohio State fans have in many ways been justified to feel that their school has been under attack – uniquely, substantially, disproportionately – in 2011. Nothing in this reflection should be seen as an attempt to attack OSU fans or insist that they feel guilty for getting Urban Meyer.

Why am I taking so much time to so painstakingly shield Ohio State fans? It’s because I’d like Ohio State fans to try to see this larger situation as worrisome without acquiring the emotional baggage attached to it. I want Ohio State fans to be guilt-free today so that they can more dispassionately appreciate what’s about to be said about the national culture in which we live and move and have our being.

Why do divorces happen? Why does man strike against man? Why does brother kill brother? Why is there so much violence in the human family regardless of the century or continent? One primary explanation is that when human beings launch criticisms or assess blame, they personalize the conflict or the problem instead of retaining a necessarily narrow focus on the ideas and principles involved in the conflict or problem. In many ways, American culture – more specifically, America’s culture of argumentation and dispute resolution – quickly devolves into a messy shouting match which conveys the following assault: “YOU (my ideological opponent, my college football archrival or national competitor, my spouse whom I no longer love) are representative of all the problems that are ruining my life and detracting from my sense of justice!” The party on the receiving end of this broadside basically responds with, “Well, what do you want me to say? What CAN I say in response to something like that?!” When people are attacked not so much for their sins, but for being representative of sins that they don’t chiefly own, they will naturally respond defensively and protect themselves. Once a relationship – between husband and wife or writer and reader or Democrat and Republican – acquires this fundamentally defensive dimension, larger understanding cannot be achieved. Two people or groups cannot find common ground or grow in understanding when they close in on themselves and protect their turf. The point should be painfully easy to understand, and it forms the gateway to the larger discussion I mean to conduct in this piece.

What is the common thread which unites so many college football debates – debates about the Heisman Trophy, the Bowl Championship Series’ national title game, NCAA violations, and so many other issues under the (autumnal Saturday) sun? It is simply and precisely this: In one year, a fan base or coach acquires one position, only to then acquire another position years later.

In one year – 2003 – Nick Saban of LSU was in position to benefit from the argument that teams who don’t win their conference shouldn’t be allowed to play for the national championship. The reality is different for Nick Saban of Alabama in 2011. In one year – 2006 – SEC fans felt that there simply shouldn’t have been a rematch for the national championship between Michigan and Ohio State, so that Florida could get its chance in the big game. In 2011, a different song is being sung in the South. In one year – 2003 – LSU’s strength of schedule based on the SEC was touted as its biggest strength in the three-way fight with Oklahoma and USC. Had LSU lost to Arkansas this past Friday to create a three-way SEC West tie including Alabama, Tiger fans would have been pounding home their team’s wins over Oregon and West Virginia. In one year – 2009 – the Alabama fan base supported Mark Ingram’s Heisman candidacy because he led the Tide to the national championship game. This year, Alabama fans are pushing Trent Richardson for the Heisman because of his total yardage in Alabama’s loss to LSU, a game in which Richardson’s team scored six points including overtime.

College football fans, you should not be made to feel guilty, or that you are under attack here. Having established that point, you KNOW – as sure as the sun rises in the east and sets in the west – that your position in one year will change in another year based on your team’s BCS hopes or your favorite player’s Heisman chances. This is a part of life in college football, given the 12-game schedule – often against soft opposition – which makes various assessments so hard to arrive at. Fans shouldn’t feel guilty because they are trapped; they are forced to take different positions on issues because the BCS gives them no legitimate ways (plus-one, flex scheduling during the regular season, etc.) to resolve disputes. BCS founder and godfather Roy Kramer said that he always wanted fans to debate and argue about college football rather than play more games. Well, Kramer has certainly received what he desired. It’s not the fault of fans for being caught up in the argument. What fans SHOULD realize is that when they argue and shift positions in accordance with the best interests of their beloved team, they are buying into the BCS framework, buying into a system which was always intended to pit brother against brother, opponent against opponent… not on the field, but in the arena of argument. The Bowl Championship Series is a main driver of the culture of argument which leads to defensive positions, a culture which invariably brings about that point of paralysis when the attacked party says, “What do you want me to say? How can I possibly respond?”

The same dynamic applies to the Heisman Trophy race each year. When one Heisman candidate is picked apart, fans of that player – and of the school associated with said player – immediately assign motives or hatreds to the analyst who levels the critique. It’s really rather remarkable that one would view it as “hatred” when a writer dares to suggest that a player is “only” the SECOND- or THIRD-BEST PLAYER IN THE UNITED STATES, as opposed to No. 1, but of course, that’s precisely the point: A culture of argumentation, a culture which leads to paralysis and the inability to retain a focus on ideas and principles, values the attainment of “Numero Uno” within a broken and ethically bankrupt system. It holds that value as paramount instead of focusing on the need to reform (if not overhaul or dismantle) that very same ethically bankrupt system. A culture of paralysis is a culture in which every critique is taken personally, and in which defending one’s turf becomes far more important than solving larger systemic problems and addressing the moral rot associated with wayward institutions.

To knit everything together, this is where America finds itself right now. Our nation finds itself in this place with respect to its polity. Democrats and Republicans both commit the same sins (you can argue about the degrees to which they sin, but the notion that they do commit the same sins is really quite unassailable on many levels), yet insist that only the other side is guilty of them. In one year, one party attacks the other for irresponsible spending or being weak on foreign policy. The next year, the other party makes the same point. In one year, one party says that the other isn’t doing enough to help the economy or reform government. The next election cycle doesn’t change the arguments being made; it merely changes the origination point of the argument itself. We know this, right? Yet, while this all-so-predictable food fight occurs, the larger systems within which the two parties collect special-interest money and flip the bird to the American people are largely ignored. Citizens get locked into the easy shouting match on a small level while being pulled away from the greater need to reform the larger, overarching systemic architecture in which they exist. The BCS and American politics are so closely related, it’s scary.

Completing the circle, it’s no different with Urban Meyer and Ohio State.

What is the most striking aspect of Meyer’s decision to join the Buckeyes right now? Clearly, it is that Meyer feels confident that OSU won’t get hit with appreciable NCAA penalties. Meyer would not be jumping into a situation in which the Buckeyes would be hamstrung for two years the way USC was. This unavoidably – and necessarily – invites comparisons between Ohio State and USC.

Ohio State fans – precisely because they feel besieged after a year in which their program did receive a disproportionate amount of media coverage – have already trotted out the arguments: USC involved the exchange of a lot of money, far more than at Ohio State. Mike Garrett was combative with the NCAA, and the NCAA doesn’t like combative athletic directors. No one’s denying those points except for the most entrenched USC partisans. However, the broader outlines of these two schools’ respective scandals both point to fundamental breakdowns in football operations and the flourishing of under-the-table activities.

Moreover, Ohio State is guilty of a few sins that don’t apply to USC. The three biggest sins are as follows:

1) Conducting a quick and transparently hollow non-investigation investigation (in December of 2010) to protect players’ eligibility for a high-revenue BCS bowl game, the 2011 Sugar Bowl against Arkansas; 2) having a head coach – not an assistant coach (then-USC assistant Todd McNair, in many ways the man at the epicenter of the Trojans’ NCAA woes) – as the lead figure/orchestrator of deceit, with the caveat being that Jim Tressel’s role as a cover-up artist has been proven beyond any reasonable doubt. McNair is suing the NCAA, the act of a man who feels he has a legitimate grievance. McNair’s place in the USC scandal cannot yet be seen in the same equally damning light which shines so brightly on Tressel.

What’s sin number three, you ask? Gene Smith is still gainfully employed as Ohio State’s athletic director. He was able to pursue Urban Meyer with the blessing of E. Gordon Gee, who is also gainfully employed as Ohio State’s president.

The point of mentioning Ohio State’s sins is not to say that they should be the focal point of NCAA investigations or that they represent the most substantial and grievous misdeeds in the theater of college athletics. If you’ve read me for any appreciable length of time, you know that I think college athletes should – at the very least – be compensated for jersey and video-game sales, that they should be able to cash in on their excellence at minimum. I think that in a healthy society, someone like Cam Newton should have been able to make money at Auburn for being an elite football player, and that Terrelle Pryor should have been able to make money as a quarterback on Rose Bowl-winning and Sugar Bowl-making teams at Ohio State. I have been forceful in saying that the tattoos and memorabilia dealings at Ohio State never did amount to a web of activities which, in a sane world, should cause such a drain on the time and energy of so many people: Ohio State compliance officers, NCAA and federal investigators, coaches, lawyers, and who knows how many other people in different lines of (interconnected) work. If you’ve read me for any length of time, you know that I think we shouldn’t ever have to worry if a great college football player gets paid or sells a jersey to make a little cash. You know I think the NCAA needs to be not just reformed on the margins, but overhauled.

Yet, in this culture of paralysis, any attempt on my part – or on the part of other analysts and editorial writers – to say that USC’s punishments at the hands of the NCAA were far worse than anything given to Ohio State will be met with (and have already been met with) bunker-mentality defensiveness from Buckeye fans.

Today, we should be having a discussion about reforming the NCAA, since Ohio State is going to essentially get off scot-free (with a better coach than Jim Tressel) for running far afoul of NCAA bylaws. We should be asking why Urban Meyer, one year after needing to spend time with his family and heal his ravaged body, has so quickly jumped back into the coaching game, confident that Ohio State won’t get hit hard by the NCAA.

However, that’s just the beginning of the discussions that truly need to begin - with a new level of seriousness and moral urgency - in the corridors of college sports power and the presidential offices at the NCAA's member schools.

Far from viewing Ohio State as some kind of uniquely problematic case, we should also conduct a discussion which will work toward an overhauling of the NCAA and its massive thicket of regulations - regulations which specifically police what happened at Ohio State but do not have precise, spelled-out provisions for the policing and punishment of what went on at Penn State. We should view Penn State as a program in which a true and damaging loss of institutional control occurred, while viewing tattoos and gold pants as things that should not eat up our time or lead to punitive actions on the part of the NCAA.

Burrowing a little deeper into the complexities of this situation in Columbus, we should be having a discussion of why Ohio State should be on the hook for these violations in the first place. We should be working toward the creation of a college sports industry in which Ohio State and other schools don’t need to worry about committing violations based on the activities surrounding Terrelle Pryor and the rest of the “Tat Five.” Yet, with that having been said, if these rules and bylaws are on the books, we should ask why the NCAA acts in certain ways toward certain schools (USC) while applying different standards to others (Ohio State).

I can only say, in conclusion, that Ohio State fans should not feel guilty about having Urban Meyer as their head coach. In return, Buckeye Nation, you should demand that Gene Smith be fired and take active steps to bring about that event. The people who care about The Ohio State University should enjoy their moment today without any sense of inhibition, but they should also consider how – if NCAA rules and bylaws possessed a proper focus on true injustices and true institutional failures – the procurement of tattoos would not be cause for any alarm or investigative activity. If we can transcend our culture of paralysis, our culture of entrenched argumentation, the Ohio State family and the larger college sports community will put the focus where it needs to be – on the NCAA and the need to substantially change the way business is done in Indianapolis.

If we can’t, the only thing you’ll hear out of Columbus is: “USC’s violations were worse!” Such a refrain would be no different from, “This year, a non-conference winning team does deserve to play for the national championship!” It would be no different from, “This year, the Heisman Trophy winner should be decided on intangibles and leadership in big games, not on pure statistical prowess as was the case when our favorite player won the award several years ago.” It would be no different from, “The opposition party is uniquely and solely responsible for all the problems affecting American families and workers, while we fight to preserve the values that have sustained the United States through decades of difficult times.”

Urban Meyer’s hiring could generate a very productive set of interlocking discussions and reform movements in collegiate athletics. The sad truth is that, in all likelihood, it will only cause our culture of paralysis to become more calcified, as partisans shout in the foreground and defend their turf instead of dealing with the larger structural issues that should be demanding our attention all along… only to remain untouched and ignored. Our country should consistently attack injustices and promote the noblest of ideals. We, as citizens and as individuals, should always look to the horizon, aiming to enshrine the best and most virtuous principles into our daily life and the institutions which govern it. We should be able to identify wrongs and, more specifically, separate trivial wrongs (Ohio State and USC together) from substantial ones (Penn State and, beyond college football, companies getting bailed out because they’re considered too big to fail). We should be able to identify severe failures of ethics and morality when we see them, even when they emerge within our school, our athletic department, our political party, our own soul in a marriage gone wrong. Moreover, we should do so not to beat ourselves up or feel guilty about our lives, but to right the wrong which exists and thereby live according to higher lights and more honorable standards.

Can we do this? Can Americans break free from the culture of paralysis which traps our nation – and the college football community – in so many obvious and substantially destructive ways? Hopefully, the tangles and tensions raised by Urban Meyer’s move to Ohio State will make us – as citizens and as college sports consumers – think a lot more deeply about the (silly and trivial) arguments we currently engage in, all while far more important discussions and necessary pursuits are never initiated.

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