Jim Dey: Punishing candor will make truth more elusive
In an age of sickening political correctness and strategic faux outrage, it's getting tough on people who like to lighten things up with a joke or two.
Just ask Gordon Gee, the soon-to-be-former president of Ohio State University. He's a guy who likes to say what other people are thinking and gets a kick out of drawing a laugh.
He was in fine form last December when he was speaking at a meeting of Ohio State's athletic council. His audience appeared to understand that Gee was interjecting a stand-up comedy routine in his comments about the state of college athletics. But when a transcript of his remarks became public, his sometimes allies ran away from him like scalded dogs.
(Here is a link for the audio of Gee's comments — http://bit.ly/19tJxcf.)
The chairman of Ohio State's board of trustees professed to be horror-stricken.
"For the leader of a renowned university, inappropriate comments about particular groups, classes of people or individuals are wholly unacceptable ...," he said.
A spokesman for the University of Notre Dame called Gee's remarks "most regrettable."
Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delaney was in a high moral dudgeon.
"The remarks made by Ohio State University President Gordon Gee were inappropriate and in no way represent the opinions of the conference," Delaney said.
Readers pretty much get the idea. Gee's comments had made him a pinata, and everyone was lining up to take a swing. Sports columnists, the self-appointed arbiters of the nation's conscience, expressed their moral outrage over Gee's comments that punctured the pretty balloon that is college sports.
Just how sensitive people profess to be was revealed when Gee made a joke about some teams padding their schedules by playing the Little Sisters of the Poor; the result was that Gee made an official apology to the Little Sisters of the Poor in northwest Ohio.
(Illinois fans should be glad its football team plays the Little Sisters of the Poor. How else would it get any wins?)
Gee lacerated the academics of some college football factories. He challenged the idea that Notre Dame would have been an acceptable team to join the Big Ten. He spoke about expanding the Big Ten mega-conference into a mega-mega-conference.
His humor targeted at Catholics sparked the most laughs and the most faux outrage.
But before getting to that, did you hear the joke Cardinal Francis Spellman told when he was asked by presidential candidate John Kennedy what Kennedy should say when voters asked him if the pope is infallible?
"I don't know, senator. All I know is that he keeps calling me 'Spillman,'" Cardinal Spellman said.
Gee's comments were prompted by past negotiations involving Notre Dame joining the Big Ten. Notre Dame was willing to join the conference, but not in football because it wanted keep its exclusive television deal with NBC. It wanted the benefits of joining the Big Ten without making any concessions to its partners — in other words, what was Notre Dame's was Notre Dame's, what belonged to the rest of the conference was negotiable.
"And I want to make it very clear, we have never invited Notre Dame to join the Big Ten. And the reason is the fact that they — first of all, they're not very good partners. I'll just say that. I negotiated with them my first term and the fathers are holy on Sunday and holy hell on the rest of the week. You just can't trust those damn Catholics on a Thursday or a Friday. Literally, I can say that," he said.
Gee also indicated his intent to maintain academic standards as the Big Ten pursues conference expansion. Some schools he admires, and other schools he clearly does not — at least in terms of academics.
"I think the presidents of the institutions are very clear that their No. 1 criteria is to make sure we have institutions of like-minded academic integrity. So you won't see us adding Louisville ... or the University of Kentucky," he said.
Gee spoke about making strategic additions to the Big Ten in a way that would create a sports behemoth.
"The addition of Maryland and Rutgers to the Big Ten gives us 40 to 50 million more viewers, making the BTN (Big Ten Network) worth more money than God. I did say that. It's a very powerful instrument for us," he said.
He talked about the Big Ten's acquisition of schools serving as a "blocking strategy" that has put "the ACC in a no-win position."
"They may think about Cincinnati. They may think about Connecticut. But they've lost their foothold in the middle part of the area, in that middle part of the Atlantic coast," he said.
Boxing in the ACC means that the Big Ten could raid that conference for schools, and then there's the Big 12 with additional schools the Big Ten might want. Gee said the conference "needs to be predatory and positive and go after" institutions that would bolster the Big Ten.
"Very candidly, I think we made a mistake. Because (we) thought about adding Missouri and Kansas at the time. There was not a great deal of enthusiasm about that. I think we should have done that at the time. So we would have had Nebraska, Missouri, Kansas and then moved into that other area. I think, by the way, that that can still happen."
Then, he said, there are quality ACC schools to snatch — Virginia, Duke and North Carolina.
"There is a real possibility that we may end up having that kind of T which goes south. And I could see them joining us," he said.
Not, of course, that people running the schools in the Southeastern Conference, the nation's top football conference, would understand any of this. Gee suggested SEC academics as they relate to sports are a joke.
"Well you tell the SEC when they can learn to read and write then they can figure out what we're doing. I've been down there. I was the chairman of the Southeastern Conference for two years. I'll tell you something. It's shameful. It really is," said Gee, a former president of Vanderbilt University.
Chicago newspaper columnist Mike Royko used to describe this kind of talk as "truth-slinging." A Mormon, Gee criticized Notre Dame as a lousy business partner for very good reason. He pointed out the importance of maintaining solid academic standards in Big Ten schools, a position almost everyone says they share. He castigated the SEC for allowing its football-mad schools to pay lip service to academics when it's really football everyone cares about.
Don't people routinely lament the grim reality that many college football and basketball stars major in athletics and little else? Shouldn't they do so? So why is it so outrageous that Gee be critical of bad things everyone knows is happening.
Nonetheless, faux outrage sunk Gee. He's stepping down from OSU on July 1 and is busying himself negotiating his multimillion-dollar exit package and soft landing as OSU's president emeritus.
Remember the movie line Jack Nicholson uttered in "A Few Good Men."
"You can't handle the truth," he shouted in the movie's climactic scene.
Certain people couldn't handle Gee's truth, and Gee couldn't handle the blow-back from those who took real offense or feigned taking offense. Too bad for us.
Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 351-5369.