When Our Heroes Fail: The Case of Jim Tressel

My love for all things Ohio State pre-dates conscious memory. I remember in 1995 going to my first football game. The band marched onto the field with military precision, 100,000+ clapping in unison to its rythmn section. Cold chills ran through me as I felt the pulsations ending in an eruption when the drum major bent backwards and touched his head to the ground. Eddie George, who would go on to win the Heisman that year, ran all over the field that game. I recall the many ensuing triumphs, like upsetting Miami to win the National Title and every time we beat Michigan. I remember the lows, like the two national championship game losses, the nail-biting defeat to Texas in 2005, and every time we lost to Michigan.

One could say that I didn’t pick Ohio State; Ohio State was chosen for me. My father and grandfather loved OSU before I existed. They brought me up in that love. Such affection became part of our own family bond. My memories of times spent with family invariably include Michigan or bowl game parties and cold afternoons in the Horseshoe, all spent with my parents, brother, and grandparents.  I even brought my future wife to a game (just as friends), neither of us knowing that the trip was only the beginning.

I recount all these memories (and recall myriad more) with a heavy heart. In a press conference, Ohio State’s head football coach, Jim Tressel, admitted to knowing of player violations of NCAA rules and not reporting them. He failed to do so for at least seven months, till the story came out by other means. This admission in itself was jarring. Not because I ever believed that countless violations of the restrictions on players and programs didn’t occur. Nor that I thought Ohio State players, many being 18-20 year old kids, would not make mistakes and do the wrong thing on more than one occasion. It wasn’t even that I thought the coaching profession was one of rigorous ethics and upstanding human beings.

But I thought Coach Tressel was different. Even during the tough times for the program, the embarrassing losses on the national stage, the inability to beat the SEC in bowl games, and all the pronunciations that Ohio State couldn’t cut it, I always believed that under Tressel, the coaches and administration would be above reproach. I always admired the way he conducted himself on and off the field. He exuded class and character. I may not have always trusted him to make the right play call on third down; I always trusted him to make the right call when good and bad were involved. His declaration to be a believer in Christ further cemented my high opinion and unwavering trust. Here was a man to emulate. Here was a man to be.

In the press conference, Coach Tressel seemed dodgy, unwilling to fully apologize and admit to his wrong action. His explanations did not make sense in any other way than a man caught in undeniable wrong-doing. Watching it, quite frankly, made me feel ill. The paltry sanctions placed on him by Ohio State will certainly not stand. They will be increased exponentially to the detriment of the school in general and the football program in particular. It is a sad, terrible day for an Ohio State and Jim Tressel fan.

So, what am I to do? What are any of us to do when our heroes fail to live up to the standards that made them heroic to us in the first place? Do we mock his or her claims about what is right, what is true, good, and virtuous? Do we become cynical to the point of losing all affection, callous to the brink of despondence?

Mockery and cynicism, as attractive as they may look, do not provide the answer. There is an old saying that hypocrisy is the price vice pays to virtue. Many times these days we reduce all virtue to consistency, only attacking the sin of saying one thing and doing another. Yet such a move is dangerous and simplistic. Its danger lay in what it reduces the good to in our estimation and thus in our actions. It is simplistic because we should know that human beings are caught in a tension, one of knowing the good but struggling between wanting and hating that good. As Paul tells us in Romans 7, this struggle does not end when faith in Christ begins. It is a war constant and bloody, fought till our dying breath. In hypocrisy, as unacceptable as it is, at least the perpetrator must pay some credence to what is right, even if his actions belittle it. It gives something on which to argue to the man and to the world about what should have been done.

Furthermore, the downfall of those we respect and admire reminds us of two great truths about Christianity. First, the Bible is full of flawed, even terrible men. David and Jonah all were guilty of horrific sins, with Jacob being not really any better naturally than his brother Essau. There we have racists, murders, adulterers, and swindlers, each of which in some way is considered a hero of the Faith. God used each in spite of, perhaps even in consideration of, their flaws. Nor did Christianity’s truth or falsity rest on their performance.

Second, humanity as a whole and the individuals that comprise it will let us down sooner or later. We cannot and should not hope for perfection and thus should have added reason to not place others on such a pedestal that our admiration turns to worship. Instead, we must look to Christ. He is singular in his faithfulness, in his truthfulness, in his abosolutely unswerving purity and love. God is faithful, powerful, and just. In placing our absolute trust in God alone, we fight off idolatry and recognize the need for submission and salvation in all of us, heroes or villains.

So what does this mean for me, for Jim Tressel, and for Ohio State? I don’t know how God will use these events or how I will think of Jim Tressel in ten years. Will it be a story of repentance, forgiveness, and reconcilation, one that gives a faint glimpse of the Gospel? Or will it be one of hard-heartedness and evasion that leaves a long-standing blight on the man and the University?

I don’t know. I do hope it is the former. Whether or not that is the case, I hope that God will give me the discernment and the heart to fight mockery and cynicism. I hope he will continue to equip me to fight sin in my own heart and not just point it out in those I admire. Finally, I hope he continues to guide me to not place my absolute trust in other men but only in his perfection faithfulness.

About Adam Carrington
  • David D.

    First, the team to follow is Penn State. No one has been above reproach like Coach Paterno. Whilst there has been some disciplinary issues (as there are in many universities) over the years, Coach Paterno’s no-nonsense approach to handling them is exemplar of quality coaching.

    Secondly, karma rocks. The goal of Christianity is absolvement of sins post-hoc. Hinduism is about not having committed the sins in the first place. Perhaps Tressel should have been a Hindu.

  • Peter Bartlett

    Great article, thanks for sharing.

    I think one huge takeaway from this whole incident is this: always be skeptical of the media image of high profile athletes/coaches. There are two sides to that. Tressel’s image before all this came out was above reproach and he was universally praised amongst coaches and media. Media in general, and especially sports media looking to generate storylines outside of sports, like to take a person’s image to the extreme. Tressel wasn’t just a good guy, he was the epitome of what a coach should be.
    The flip side we are experiencing now is the media painting him as a complete phony. Like everything good he did beforehand was just a coverup to his cheating ways.

    I think it is important to be wary of both images the media portrays, since common sense says they are both wrong. Obviously Tressel made a big mistake and wasn’t the squeaky clean guy everyone thought he was, but it is hard to imagine all the good things he did were an act.


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