Some incoming freshmen at Ohio State dipped into their pockets last week for some fashion accessories that caused a buzz on campus. They spent $15 each on wristbands with Jim Tressel's initials on them as a display of support for the ousted football coach.
Nothing wrong with that, even though university officials quickly made them get refunds in case there's a NCAA violation lurking somewhere. No sense in further antagonizing the NCAA, especially because the day of judgment for the embattled Ohio State program is still to come.
The players may have thought about giving the $15 directly to Tressel as a small token of appreciation, but, guys, it would be better spent on a pizza delivery or a Saturday night at the movies.
Tressel already profited from his players way too much.
University records released this week show the former Buckeyes coach pocketed a whopping $21.7 million during his decade-long tenure at Ohio State, where the checkbook was always open as long as Tressel kept beating Michigan. The perks were almost as good as his salary, with private jets just a phone call away, luxury cars for the asking, and, of course, the obligatory country club memberships.
About the same time Ohio State was detailing the riches bestowed upon its former coach, NCAA presidents were meeting in Indianapolis to discuss reform in big-time college athletics. Money was on their agenda, too, with good reason. Last year, only 22 of the 337 Division I schools generated more revenue than they had expenses.
Tressel's fellow coaches can breathe easy, though. No one is coming after their bloated paychecks.
"The marketplace for salaries is the marketplace for salaries, and everyone understands that," NCAA President Mark Emmert said.
University presidents surely do, even though their own salaries are dwarfed by the money thrown at coaches whose deepest academic thoughts revolve around how many wins it will take to get into a BCS game. The presidents also understand that if they want to keep their jobs, they better keep alumni happy with a winning football program.
That's why OSU President Gordon Gee did everything but hold a pep rally for Tressel outside his office when the Buckeyes coach first got in trouble for not informing the NCAA about players selling memorabilia. Gee's regard for the coach was so high, he joked that he hoped Tressel wouldn't fire him. And he stuck by him until finally jumping ship when it became clear the coach was going down.
Until then, Tressel was enjoying a $3.5 million salary, plus the perks that made living in Columbus easier. That didn't even make him the highest paid coach in the country, that distinction belongs to Nick Saban, who gets around $5 million a year at Alabama.
Staggering as that amount is, contracts only figure to get bigger. A recent spate of television deals by major conferences means even more cash will be flowing in, and the bidding for top talent will escalate. There is no salary cap for coaches and, while some university presidents grumbled about the rich contracts at the NCAA, there seems to be no appetite among them to implement one.
That doesn't mean they weren't talking money. They were, and some of it may actually go to players.
Not much, of course. No reason to open up the wallet when players can accept nothing more than books and board for their services while coaches and administrators laugh all the way to the bank. Throw a few dollars their way so they can do laundry or maybe buy an IPad, and then it's back to business as usual.
The idea that players are paid off in a college education has been the moral underpinning of college athletics for more than a century. It works well in most sports, but football and basketball are such huge cash generators at major universities that they are essentially running professional teams — without the inconvenience of having to actually pay players.
The head coaches aren't the only ones cashing in. Assistants now routinely make six-figure contracts, while athletic directors are often the highest paid administrators on campus. Last year, four commissioners of the six biggest football conferences all earned more than $1 million a year.
Meanwhile, players like Terrell Pryor are essentially sent packing because they sold a few team jerseys to help make ends meet..
Emmert's idea of reform, presented to university presidents this week, would increase scholarship money a few hundred dollars a month so that athletes can afford to do laundry or even go to the movies. He also wants to shrink the NCAA's rule book, an admirable goal in itself.
Real reform, however, won't come until the huge imbalance is corrected between those who get rich off college athletes and those who play the games.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg