The Game of Bleachers

By Jake on June 1, 2011 at 1:00 pm
Littlefinger paid Cam Newton. It is known.

Writers across the country continue to spill loads of ink as the current Tressel Saga unfolds. That isn't likely to end anytime soon. While a coach resigning in disgrace, deserved or not, is a devestating blow to a football program, it's Manna from Heaven for those who write about the sport. Color me conflicted. And even when the issue blows over, the coaching search will keep tOSU in the headlines throughout the next year. As when a school as big and important as Ohio State steps a foot onto the coaching carousel, the whole damn thing starts to tip from the weight. That said, there is only so much that can be said about an issue before you start treading the same ground. How many times do we need to be told that Pryor is a lightening rod or that Tressel wasn't what he seemed? 

Now, you may or may not be as "with it" and refined as myself, but if you are, then you've been watching HBO's Game of Thrones as intently as I am. Nominally fantasy, GoT is a story of intrigue, political maneuvering, backstabbing, war, and a tiny amount of sex for the kids: like The Wire with swords and British accents instead of guns and ebonics. Two of the main characters in this drama, Littlefinger and Ned Stark, offer contrasting portraits of how to wade through a complex and pitiless world. I think the show offers us as Buckeyes fans a compelling dichotomy through which to examine Jim Tressel's legacy. I pose a simple question: Is Jim Tressel Ned Stark, or Littlefinger?

Lord Eddard "Ned" Stark is an honorable man in a society of liars, thieves, and sadists. Tressel, himself a sort of throwback, has much in common with the Lord from the North. Ned is a man of tradition. Keeping the Old Gods and and honoring the ways of his ancestors, he is a fish out of water in the cosmopolitan and complex capital city. Hailing from the frigid castle of Columbus Winterfell, he is called up to the big leagues by his close friend and confidante, King Robert Baratheon. Unfortunately for Ned, honor is more of a hinderence than a help in his new locale, and he quickly finds himself outflanked and hemmed in by the more practiced players of the "game." Yet unlike most of the nobility, and despite all of his missteps, Stark does what he thinks best for his family, his bannermen, and the people. Like Tressel, his image as a man of honor was nigh unimpeachable, yet bad decisions ultimately lead to a tarnished legacy. 

Lord Petyr "Littlefinger" Baelish is a man who many know, but no one truly understands. Like Tressel and Youngstown State, Littlefinger came from humble beginnings as lord of a smallhold in the Fingers (hence the nickname), yet has risen to among the highest of positions as Master of Coin. Unlike Ned, Littlefinger is a master politician and holds a keen mind to go along with his prodigious wealth. Tressel, known as "The Senator" and rarely saying anything he doesn't want said, may have been involved in his own double-dealings. Littlefinger loves Catelyn Stark, Ned's wife, and many of the despicable things he's done over the many years have been in pursuit of her love. Likewise, it may be that Tressel's love of his university and his players lead him to forsake his integrity. 

Jim Tressel, after 10 years of coaching, is perhaps more of an enigma then ever. The only thing we know about the man for sure is that we don't know him. Is he a Ned Stark, an honorable man destroyed by a corrupt system? Or is he a Petyr Baelish, a conniving master of deception, pulling the wool over the eyes of every willing believer? The question of whether Tressel's motivations are honorable is largely irrelevant as far as the university and the football program are concerned, but the veracity of his integrity lies at the heart of his legacy. Tressel broke the rules. He did so repeatedly. He overlooked the tattoos, set up players with questionable jobs, and perhaps most egregiously, in a moral sense, he rigged raffles at football camps. 

Yet, as is the case with every story, the man himself is likely more complex than any characterization can encompass. It is not a mutually exclusive dichotomy we're faced with: Tressel as evil and manipulative con artist, or honorable but naive father-figure. The truth is, looking after the well-being of the players and the interests of the university is Tressel's job, and insofar as those two things conflict with the rules set forth by the NCAA, it is honorable for him to break those rules. Just as Robin Hood was more honorable than King John, it could be that Tressel is a tragic hero, fighting a broken system. Yet just as possible is that Tressel is just as cynical and corrupt as everyone else, but merely better at hiding it (or worse, since he did get caught). We never really find out what Petyr "Littlefinger" Baelish's end game is. We know he's a liar, a cheat, and willing to sacrifice almost everything in pursuit of his goal. Yet we don't truly know what his goal is. The same can be said for Jim Tressel. We know he broke the rules, but we don't know why.

The fact is, as Deadspin writes, the system itself leads to a lose-lose proposition. Game of Thrones is also a story about a broken system, where no action is honorable and everyone is a villian to somebody. The NCAA and College Football is much the same way. While one world is fantasy and the other reality, one a "game" with life or death stakes and the other truly just a game, the question of integrity lies at the heart of both. 

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