I want to like Gordon Gee. He seemed like a good guy when he was president of Vanderbilt. He wears bow ties, which makes me think other kids didn't play with him as a child. (I feel the same way about George Will.) I'll never forget the episode of "This American Life" about the letters his dying wife wrote for their daughter -- letters his wife asked him to deliver after her death. (That's a three-tissue story, at least.)
But Gordon, buddy, you're making this hard.
The AP reported Thursday that Gee, who's now president at Ohio State, stepped in a big steaming pile at a meeting last December of the school's Athletic Council. While talking about negotiations for Notre Dame to join the Big Ten, he joked that "you just can't trust those damn Catholics." When a questioner asked about the SEC joking that the Big Ten can't count because it has 14 members, Gee said "You tell the SEC when they can learn to read and write, then they can figure out what we're doing." This, remember, from a guy who used to be the president of an SEC school.
There are only three good explanations for saying those things:
1. They passed around shots of Jager before the meeting;
2. He fell victim, like the great Ron Burgundy, to teleprompter sabotage;
3. This smart, educated, successful university president really wants the jocks to like him.
Gee knows he doesn't own the moral high ground. Just two years ago, under his watch, football coach Jim Tressel got caught in a cover-up over his knowledge that football players were trading helmets and other gear for free tattoos and such. What did Gee say when asked if he would fire Tressel? "No, are you kidding? Let me just be very clear: I'm just hopeful the coach doesn't dismiss me."
But Tressel ended up resigning anyway, and Ohio State went on probation, and so last year's 12-0 team under Urban Meyer couldn't play for a national championship.
It feels as if Gee likes to talk tough and say inappropriate things when the subject is sports. Maybe he feels like that's somewhere you can still get away with saying those things. Maybe he felt safe, in front of the Athletic Council, with being that version of himself.
As Dan Wetzel pointed out, Gee has been a powerful member of the NCAA's boards and executive committees. He's one of the people who helped build the wall around amateurism in college athletics, even as it makes less and less sense that the wall still stands.
But being in the middle of it, he has to know his place. It's as simple as numbers. Gee makes $1.9 million a year. Urban Meyer makes $4.2 million.
Gee is known, above all else, as a brilliant fundraiser. He knows the power of money. He knows what it means when the football coach makes more than twice what he does. And he knows that's the case across the country. So it makes sense for him to try to fit in with the sports people. I just don't think he has the feel for it.
He has already apologized for what he said this time around, although I'm not sure that's the end of it. "You just can't trust those damn Catholics" is a hard one to get away from, even if you're joking. (Insert your own ethnic group there and see how you'd feel.)
But as always, what people say is less important than what they do. If Gee led reforms that restored some common sense to college sports, instead of just milking the cash from it, then he'd be standing on more solid ground. For now, though, we have to assume he's just kidding.
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