The Perils of Schadenfreude

On August 16, 2012 by

It wasn’t that long ago.

We know exactly how they feel. A year and a half ago, the scandalous center of college football was occupied by Ohio State. As the drama surrounding Jim Tressel and his players’ banned conduct grew, the media’s gaze grew stronger and the fan base longed to dodge the spotlight.

Almost a year later, the NCAA’s enforcement officials handed down their decision in the Buckeyes’ case, resulting in a one-year bowl ban, some minor scholarship losses, and unwanted additional embarrassment for an unusually proud program. At the time, the feeling that the program had been unnecessarily dragged through the mud was hard to escape within the Buckeyes’ fan base. That was largely a result of the extreme attention the national media paid to the tattoo scandal. But it was also partially attributable to the fact that dozens of fan bases around the country seemed to relish the opportunity to tear down one of the sport’s most prestigious and respected programs.

So, to a large swath of the Buckeye fan base, there are three villains responsible for the humiliation of 2011 : the national media, the NCAA, and opposing fan bases.

We may have judged the situation too harshly. In recent months, college football has gained a measure of perspective that forces a reevaluation of the past year and a half. The NCAA’s decision on Ohio State seems to have kicked off a new era of enforcement for college sports’ governing body. It’s within that still-developing context that we should evaluate the Buckeyes’ situation.

The NCAA devastated Penn State. A four-year postseason ban, an annual cap of 65 on scholarships, a staggering fine, and over a decade of vacated wins are collectively the institutional equivalent of a nuclear bomb.

According to reports that emerged early this week, Oregon is next in line. They’re facing a multiple year bowl ban and deeper scholarship cuts than the Buckeyes are currently dealing with. If that’s true, Chip Kelly may lose his job.

Though nothing concrete has been revealed about the coming penalties for UNC and Miami, they should both be in line for penalties worse than those Oregon is about to receive if the NCAA stays consistent with its recent rulings.

These penalties, both real and theoretical, have several things in common. All are justifiably worse than Ohio State’s. And all are proportional to the corresponding crimes, particularly if Ohio State’s case is used as a benchmark.

What I’m saying to the Ohio State fan base is this: we didn’t have it so bad. In the apparent new “era” of NCAA enforcement, Ohio State received a punishment that was well aligned to its wrongdoing. In fact, it doesn’t feel like more than a slap on the wrist when compared to the list of recent and upcoming enforcement cases detailed above. It’s true that the media and the fan bases of our opponents seemed to relish the program’s troubles, but it’s also true that being a dominant program with the largest fan base in the country invites commentary, not all of which will be positive. The Buckeyes make headlines, both positive and negative, for whatever they do, simply because they’re the Buckeyes. If you can’t accept that, you’re a part of the wrong fan base. The vilification of external parties for their enjoyment of Ohio State’s supposed decline comes off as increasingly petty by the week.

Schadenfreude isn’t a good look for us. We may believe that our program and our integrity were unnecessarily skewered over the past year, but we’d be doing our experiences and ourselves a disservice if we forgot the lessons we learned when dealing with our counterparts in State College, Eugene, Chapel Hill, and Miami. Remember that the fans (and most of the current coaches and players) of those programs are no more responsible for their leaders’ misdeeds than we were for Tressel’s.

In the end, we have it better than almost any other fan base in the country. We’re bigger. Our team is better. We replaced a great coach with a legendary one. And the “scandal” that rocked Columbus a year and a half ago will have almost no lasting consequences.

We’re lucky. And we should conduct ourselves accordingly.