Posted by Adam Jacobi
It's easy to see a headline about Ohio State investigating car deals for its players and automatically assume the worst. Now that the NCAA is already preparing to bring OSU before the dreaded Committee on Infractions for the tattoo scandal and coverup, it's easier to figure that an investigation's going to uncover more bad news.
It's not that simple, though. While this investigation might not uncover any wrongdoing by the embattled Ohio State athletic department or its players, it also might place the very legitimacy of the compliance department at stake.
As the Columbus Dispatch reported today, Ohio State's chief enforcer of NCAA rules is opening an investigation into dozens of car purchases by players and their relatives from two Columbus-area dealerships (both of whom employed salesman Aaron Kniffin), looking for any evidence of special discounts or other impermissible benefits. While it seems like that's a good thing to investigate, seeing the potential for impropriety in large-value transactions, the real issue here is that according to the dealers and salesman under investigation, the deals were already reviewed the first time around by OSU associate athletic director Doug Archie and his compliance department:
Both dealers, whose businesses are not connected, say they routinely call Archie's office when an athlete is ready to buy a car, provide the purchase price and discuss who will co-sign on a loan. Archie said he relies on the car dealers to provide accurate information.
"I'm not a car expert. We have to rely on their integrity and their word when it comes to selling a car," he said. Ohio State runs "spot checks" on some transactions against the Kelley Blue Book value.
Kniffin told The Dispatch that he has sold cars to at least four dozen OSU athletes and their relatives, that the OSU compliance staff directed them to him, and that university officials reviewed all documents before sales were final.
Archie said that he has spoken to Kniffin only once, never reviews sales documents and has not directed players to any dealerships.
Now, this would seem to be little more than a discussion about procedure if it weren't for the fact that according to public records, OSU lineman Thaddeus Gibson "bought" a two-year-old Chrysler for $0 from Kniffin. Gibson and Kniffin both deny that the price listed on the title was the actual sale price, but $0 seems to be what they're telling the government. That's a discrepancy for which the IRS, NCAA, and OSU compliance department are all going to need a lot of explanation.
The Dispatch also found multiple car loans to Terrelle Pryor, including Kniffin's own for a trip back to Pennsylvania for three days. Indeed, four of the six players suspended in the tattoo scandal also purchased cars from Kniffin. Perhaps that's just mere coincidence, and perhaps all four car sales were legitimate and above board. It's undeniable that there's cause for concern, however.
Worse, perhaps there are more questionable transactions yet to be found in the investigation. Perhaps there's not. Only time will tell there, obviously. The fact remains, though, that Ohio State needs to make it clear just how much oversight they were providing with regards to players and their families buying these cars, and how impermissible purchases -- if any -- were allowed to proceed.
There's a very, very bad worst-case scenario here for Ohio State. It's got a lot of ifs, so it's not terribly likely, but it's not out of the realm of plausibility. IF there were special discounts being given out, and IF the compliance department was reviewing sales documents, and IF that office was also directing players to those dealerships, THEN Ohio State would basically have been running a sham of a compliance department. That's a lack of institutional control nonpareil. Again, that's a worst-case scenario, and one that OSU's director of compliance has already denied, but these are the stakes at play here.
That, in fact, is what makes this potential scandal so pernicious: it has little, if anything, to do with Jim Tressel and the previous scandal. Indeed, what was most striking about the allegations levied against Tressel was that they didn't implicate OSU as a whole, leaving open the possibility that OSU could paint Tressel as a rogue coach operating in flagrant defiance of his contract, fire him, and wash their hands of the matter. But here, the possibility exists that players were getting the green light from the compliance department to break compliance rules. That's something that simply firing Tressel isn't going to sweep under the rug.
Again, that's just the worst-case scenario. Ohio State fans had better hope it doesn't come true.