Thursday, June 02, 2011

The Buckeyes: Ohio's State Religion

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For those that don’t have religion, there is football.” A  line from the 1975 movie Night Moves, in which Gene Hackman plays a former professional football player turned floundering private detective who is going around helplessly in circles in a world devoid of meaning and values.
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“Trust ye not in lying words . . .” Jeremiah 7:4

State Religion

The word fan is short for fanatic, which is a person who idolizes and  blindly worships someone or some thing.  The sports fanatic is second  cousin to the religious fanatic. The religious fanatic worships a god, the sports fanatic worships a star player or  a favorite team. Religious fanatics have holy places and so do sports fanatics. Catholics have the Vatican, Muslims have Mecca, and Buckeye fans have Ohio Stadium, on Woody Hayes Drive. 
     The Buckeye religion depends upon young men, many of them African-Americans, to perform the violent rituals that the fanatically faithful live to watch. A central myth of the Buckeye religion is that these young men are clean living and stalwart amateurs who without remuneration, other than board, room, and tuition,  perform the violent football ritual for the faithful. While OSU makes millions, the players get trophies and medals they trade for tattoos. One player who traded some memorabilia said he and his mother were struggling financially while others were making lots of money from the program. He mentioned no names, but in 2010 the annual revenue from the program was $68 million and Tressel's salary package was $4.1 million. Some players are from single parent families and from impoverished backgrounds where drugs and crime are rife. The single parent is often a poor mother. That is the player’s excuse, but what is Coach Tressel’s?
If Tressel is the minister of the Buckeye  religion, OSU president Gordon Gee is the bishop, but in the Buckeye  religion the minister is much more powerful than the bishop as Gee revealed when he quipped to reporters, “I’m just hoping he,” meaning Tressle, “doesn’t dismiss me.”  Because they are incriminating, if not devastating, important truths can sometimes be revealed only in jest.  In the Buckeye religion, the geek is the lowliest, most pathetic creature in creation, not worthy of washing the feet of a coach who has not only won a national title but beaten Michigan nine  out of the last ten meetings. Not since Wally Cox, TV's Mr. Peepers, roomed with Marlon Brando have we had such an odd couple as Gee and Tressel. For the trustees to have hired the bow-tied Gee for a second go-round was a good way of emphasizing who is really the boss  at OSU—the coach of the football team. But by revealing an inconvenient truth, Gee may have brought  his own retirement that much closer. If the coach has got to go, can the geek be far behind?
If the eighth circle of hell is reserved for those football players who get caught, the ninth circle is reserved for those who get caught and reveal inconvenient truths about “the program,” as the Ohio State system is sometimes called. Running back Maurice Clarett has been consigned to the ninth circle because not only was he caught red-handed but he then blew the whistle on the whole program.

Maurice Clarett consigned to the Ninth Circle of Hell

In our intensely competitive society, being Number One is tantamount to salvation. “Winning isn’t everything; its the only thing,” Vince Lombardi liked to say. That's the first and only commandment of big time college football. Jim Tressel has put a pious spin on “winning is the only thing,”  by saying, in effect,Winning is the godly thing.” Winning is  a goal so worthy of reaching that  cheating to reach it is acceptable provided you don’t get caught. This is as true in football as it is on Wall Street. The hypocritical Tressel got  caught and now the nation is shocked, shocked to learn that he  was forced to resign because he and his recruits have not always played fair and square. It’s a very big  news story not only in Ohio but throughout the country and will be for at least forty-eight hours. This is not just an athletic crisis. This is a spiritual  crisis because OSU football  is the state religion of  Ohio. The state motto, which Tressel highlighted in The Winners Manual,  is “With God all things are possible.” The unwritten corollary is, “Without the Buckeyes, nothing is possible.” There is no other category that Ohio has ranked first in, and thereby been redeemed by, except OSU football. Five times Woody Hayes (blessed be his name!) took the Buckeyes to the Promised Land.  A national title is the state’s salvation. Jim Tressel did it once, but he got caught and now he will be consigned to the Eighth Circle of Hell. Hayes is a saint for having five times filled  up the spiritual emptiness at the heart of it all. Jim Tressel did it only once and now he’s been caught. The fans will turn on him the way they turned on the forty or so players who were caught in his ten years as coach. Along with everyone else, even Brutus Buckeye might turn on him. I can imagine the disgraced coach saying to the Buckeye mascot, “Et tu, Brutus?”          
     “Lasting goals are also from God, and they affect the people around us for good,” it says in The Winners Manual. Well, maybe around Him but not exactly around Tressel. There is Robert Reynolds, to take just one example, who early in Tressel's  tenure  infamously choked the Wisconsin quarterback well after the whistle had blown, knocking him, or choking him, out of the game. Whatever possessed Reynolds to do that? When he was later suspended by the Tennessee Titans for failing a drug test, we have a possible explanation, though the win-at-any-cost-because-God-is-on-our-side spirit of OSU football may have been the only inspiration he needed, though it should be pointed out that the Buckeyes choked and the Badgers came from behind to win the game. For anyone with eyes to see, it was clear whose side God was on that day. 

OSU linebacker Robert Reynolds who gave a whole new meaning to the phrase “an athlete who chokes.