Looking back on one of the most ferocious criminals in United States history, it's almost comical how he was taken down. For years, Al Capone had beaten back every attempt by the FBI, the Chicago Police, and all manner of state and federal law enforcement to pin him to the series of crimes he appeared to easily associated with. It wasn't by accident. Capone had placed or purchased highly ranked informants everywhere. He'd built tunnels under the city which allowed him to escape at a moment's notice should a club he was at ever be raided. He intimidated or killed anyone with the guts to stand up to him. Despite this seemingly obvoious chain of evidence, he'd stayed clean.
No one could pin anything on him. Not the gun running; the gin joints; the brothels; the St. Valentine's Day Masacre. Everyone knew he was pulling the strings on a massive criminal enterprise but no one could prove it. Armed with highly paid lawyers and accountants that funnelled money to his more legitimate business dealings or produced shell companies that masked his empire's true designs he was... well.. untouchable (if you'll pardon the original intention of the title being turned on it's ear). Capone was always somewhere else, doing something else, when the bad stuff went down. He'd been sure to cover not just his criminal tracks, but his business dealings as well. From the outside, it seemed as though no detail was too small to warrant attention.
And then the fool decided not to pay his taxes and the whole damn thing came tumbling down on his head. Taxable income is taxable income, and the government didn't care how you got it. For a man that knew the ins and outs of the corporate shell game he paid shockingly little attention to federal tax law. And in 1927 when the Supreme Court ruled that profits gained from a criminal enterprise were taxable for income purposes, Capone failed to grasp the ruling's significance. It's nearly impossible to believe that a detail so mundane, tax law, led to the unraveling of one of the greatest criminal empires America had ever seen. But then again, that's how it always seems to happen. A minor detail is overlooked, ignored, or callously disregarded, and Pandora's little box gets thrown wide open.
Let's be clear about something though. Comparing Jim Tressel to Al Capone broadly is perhaps the worst kind of hyperbole I've been guilty of in years. I admit this. They are not even remotely similar men. To call Tressel's actions "criminal" in any sense is bordering on the obscene. Whatever thing Tressel has done, at worst, is breaking the rules of an organization with no ties to the government and no ability to punish him (other than to make his earning a living as a college football coach a little more difficult). Jim Tressel, at worst, will be fired and retire to a comfortable life with his family. He'll speak at events and probably end up coaching an Ohio High School football team or two. This is Tressel's worst case scenario.
The reason for this is the worst thing he's done is lie to the NCAA and to the assembled media. Neither of which is a crime. It is reprehensible to people who love college football, but in reality it did little to the planet or it's populace who could care less (re: 99% of the planet). He is a liar. He is not a felon, a murderer, or a tax evader. He's a college football coach who, on the surface, did something incredibly stupid and then lied about it.
However, as more details continue to emerge about the seemingly outright corruption surrounding the Ohio State football (and basketball program, as William Bufurd has been implicated), Tressel's transgressions may not be limited to just one incident. There may be something much, much worse lurking under the surface as people start to dig deeper into the fetid details surrounding the progam. As a result, I couldn't but help to think of Capone when the news of Car-Gate began to grace the pages of ESPN and the web community.
While it's noteworthy, I couldn't help but think none of this would be front page news if not for Tressel's mind boggling decision to lie to the NCAA - and his compliance department - about the goings on of Tat-Gate. You may disagree with that, but think about it. Tressel's nose has been clean through Maurice Clarrett, Youngstown State, seemingly obvious recruiting violations, and more. This would ordinarily just be another instance of athletes behaving badly if not for Tat-Gate rather than more evidence of a program that seems to be spinning out of control.
I'm still coming to terms with Tat-Gate. What Tressel did was so foolish, so stupid, that it didn't make sense. It was so dumb that I came out in defense of him with the line:
If Tressel was that stupid (something I seriously doubt), he should be fired.
Seriously. How could "The Vest" be that dumb? It confuses me even now. But then again, how could Capone have been so stupid as to not pay his taxes? The comparison here is not criminal intent or the measure of how questionable the methods of obtaining the high perch were, it's how much was at stake and how dumb the mistake was.
Maybe I should be comparing Tressel to Marie Antoinette, or the Czars of Russia, or the Shahs of Iran. People in great positions of power and influence who lost touch with their people, lost contact with the rules they had to follow, and subsequently lost their heads to an angry mob. But again, that would be straining an already tortured storyline. Metaphors are tricky sometimes.
I still think the Capone comparison still fits in a limited, contained way. Both men had so much to lose, both men knew that there were aspects of their empires that were unclean, both men would've been better served to follow the rules in order to protect what they'd built. But that's never how it ends, is it? Eventually, the powerful begin to think they are above the rules that they have successfully avoided or, as is the case here, walked so carefully along the edge of the razor of that they believe it no longer represents a threat. And then, stupidly, they stop paying attention and cut themselves to ribbons.
As the layers are peeled back the public is begins to see just how rotten to the core their enterprise really was. Some of this may be no fault of Tressel's. While I think he was complicit in Tat-Gate and actively tried to conceal it, at first glance he does not appear to have any form participation in the evolving Car-Gate story. However, as details of Terrelle Pryor's "test-drives", $0 cars for Thadeus Gibson, and the involvement of three other players already implicated in Tat-Gate emerge, the circumstantial evidence of Tressel's complicit behavior is beginning to pile up like garbage in a dump, and it smells just as bad.
What's more troubling to me is that the culture created here appears even more rotten than the events that brought Michigan Basketball to the brink of the death penalty.
Cars. Money. Rouge boosters. Coaches looking the other way.
It started the same way at Michigan. A simple accident on M-14 started it all. What were the kids doing there? Who's car was it? How could he afford thatcar? Who's this Ed Martin guy? How close was he to Michigan? Jeeezus, look at these cars and these places, how could Fischer not have known what was going on? Suddenly, we were drowning. And that was without a coach actively trying to conceal a separate violation at the time.
To anyone at Michigan during the Fab Five and the Robert Traylor years, it was beyond obvious that the players were on the take. I'm certain for Ohio State students in Columbus right now it's pretty obvious that certain players are living well beyond their means as well. Perhaps Tressel knew about the car issue and that was one of the reasons he failed to report the implications of Tat-Gate. If he could keep it quiet, no one would start digging into other things. Maybe he knew something was up when his players started showing up in $30,000+ cars, but decided to look the other way. Is it conjecture? Sure. But when you've got the man lying on the record, repeatedly, it's conjecture that is warranted.
If you've followed college football over the years you know that where there is smoke, the is usually fire. Miami. USC. SMU. Oklahoma. Auburn. It's so damn obvious that it takes your breath away, but despite the obviousness of it all no one has the documentation or the stones to press charges. It's not like Capone's hits, gin joints and brothels weren't obvious. It was just that no one could link them to him because of the precautions Capone had taken years earlier. Even so, if you're not following the rules, you get caught eventually. Sure there's short term gain, but that's it. You make a simple mistake that brings the whole thing crashing down on your head.
The Senator earned his nickname with boring soundbites and the ability to distance himself from just about everything bad that's happened at Ohio State over the years. And this is not an insubstantial list. Santonio Holmes and Troy Smith taking money. The record setting string of secondary NCAA violations. Maurice Clarrett. The allegations of improper recruiting recently disclosed in the Auburn investigation. Until now, he's stayed clean.
But this one is tied directly to him, and it's of his own making. It really doesn't matter what comes out in Car-Gate because of this. Tressel's actions in Tat-Gate dissolved any benefit of the doubt and whatever dirt is dug up in Car-Gate will be his fault irrespective of whether it actually is or not. The people who have been waiting for ten years (or more) to get him, now have everything they need to do so.
All because of one avoidable mistake, Tressel's empire may come crumbling down.