Suspended Buckeyes got a free pass

An opportunity was missed in the Sugar Bowl on Tuesday night in the Superdome.

It wasn’t missed by Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett even though he threw a last-minute interception at the Ohio State 17 to short-circuit a dramatic Razorbacks comeback.

It was missed two weeks earlier when five Ohio State players, who were suspended five games for NCAA violations, were allowed to play in the Sugar Bowl and serve the entire suspension at the start of next season.

Bad idea. Missed opportunity.

First, the details. The NCAA determined that the players sold memorabilia and/or received discounted rates for tattoos in 2009. The transgressions violated NCAA rules that prevent student-athletes from receiving any benefits that would not be available to other students.

Fine, they violated the rules and were rightly punished. Star quarterback Terrelle Pryor, leading rusher Daniel Herron, wide receiver DeVier Posey, tackle Mike Adams and defensive end Solomon Thomas were suspended for the first five games of next season. A sixth player, linebacker Jordan Whiting, was suspended for the first game of next season for receiving a discounted rate.

The problem wasn’t with the punishment, it was with the NCAA’s willingness to allow the perpetrators to play in the Sugar Bowl.

Critics have alleged that the decision was made in the interest of a more compelling matchup that would sell more tickets and increase television ratings. In other words, it was a business decision.

NCAA officials flatly denied the charge, but even taken at their word, they made the wrong decision.

In the statement that was issued in defense of the ruling in late December, the NCAA said its rules allow for the postponement of a suspension until after a championship or bowl game. The statement read, in part, that the rule "recognizes the unique opportunity these events provide at the end of a season, and they are evaluated differently from a withholding perspective for student-athlete reinstatement."

Here’s the unique opportunity that the Sugar Bowl presented, that the NCAA missed:

The players were suspended, in part, for selling memorabilia that included Big Ten Championship rings. They obviously lacked a proper appreciation for the value of the memorabilia and the accomplishments they represented.

The NCAA missed an opportunity to help instill a greater appreciation. Forcing the players to miss games against Akron, Toledo, Miami, Colorado, and especially the Big Ten opener against Michigan State is a strong punishment. But the Sugar Bowl would have been, well, unique.

In the NCAA’s words, a bowl game is a "unique opportunity." It’s a reward for a special season. It’s a reward the culprits were allowed to enjoy.

Had the NCAA begun the suspension with the Sugar Bowl, the players would have had that "unique opportunity," that reward, taken away from them because of their transgressions.

A bowl trip, like a Big Ten Championship ring, represents a special accomplishment. But unlike a ring or other memorabilia, a bowl experience can’t be sold. The players would have nothing to show for their 11-1 season.

Pryor would have been denied the opportunity to be named Most Valuable Player in the Sugar Bowl, which he was, one year after being named Most Valuable Player for leading Ohio State to a Rose Bowl victory against Oregon.

Herron would have been denied the opportunity to rush for 87 yards and a touchdown, and Posey would have been denied an opportunity to catch three passes for 70 yards and a score a.

Thomas would have been denied an opportunity to make the interception that sealed the Buckeyes’ 31-26 victory, and Adams and Whiting would have been denied an opportunity to help Ohio State end its infamous 0-for-9 drought against SEC teams in the postseason.

"We all had to come out and have an impact on the game," Herron said.

They had an impact, all right, but they were denied a teachable moment by the NCAA, which is supposed to be in the business of teaching student-athletes.

Buckeyes coach Jim Tressel, who, by the way, seems to be a man way too principled and dignified to be making his living in the often-times seamy world of big-time college football, wouldn’t allow the players to travel to New Orleans until they agreed that they would not enter the NFL draft early.

He thought it would be wrong for the players to participate in the Sugar Bowl, then avoid the belated punishment by bolting for the pros.

Of course, there’s nothing to prevent the players from reneging on their promise, other than a greater respect for their coach and school than they showed in committing the violations.

Pryor sounded remorseful while addressing Buckeye fans on behalf of the guilty parties.

"We made dumb mistakes two years ago, and the NCAA had to do their job and take us out," he said. "I apologize to everybody."

Later, he sounded like a player who would stick to his commitment, saying, "I don’t think I’m really ready for the NFL. I have a lot of growing up to do."

Perhaps he and the others have learned from their mistakes. Unfortunately, they’ll never know what they would have learned from missing the Sugar Bowl.