Gordon Gee’s comments and the sway of college sports

Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press
Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press

Rivalries run deep in college sports. We'll give Gordon Gee that. A little innocent trash talking may be tolerated.

But comments made in December by the Ohio State University president about Notre Dame's leaders, the SEC and the University of Louisville go way beyond the pale. In a recording of a meeting of the school's Athletic Council that was obtained by the Associated Press, Gee joked that you can't trust "those damn Catholics" ("the fathers are holy on Sunday, and they’re holy hell on the rest of the week," he reportedly also said), the academic capabilities of SEC students ("you tell the SEC when they can learn to read and write, then they can figure out what we’re doing"), and the academic integrity of the University of Louisville.

In response, the AP reports that Gee issued a statement of apology, saying "the comments I made were just plain wrong" and admits "they were a poor attempt at humor and entirely inappropriate.” The university's trustees said Gee is undergoing a "remediation plan" after it learned in January of offensive statements, calling the remarks "inappropriate" and "not presidential in nature."

You can say that again. Gee, who is the third-highest paid public university president in the country, according to a report by the Chronicle of Higher Education (he made nearly $2 million in the 2011-12 fiscal year), should know better. He has gotten into hot water previously for his comments. Before former Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel resigned amid a memorabilia-for-tattoos scandal involving his players, Gee defended his coach in a way that put football on a pedestal: “Let me just be very clear: I’m just hopeful the coach doesn’t dismiss me.” And back in 2010, he compared the strength of the opponents in other conferences to the “Little Sisters of the Poor," prompting him to send a personal check to the religious order.

Obviously, Gee has some issues with sticking his foot in his mouth, and has said a number of things inappropriate for a university president. One has to wonder just exactly what the school's "remediation plan" entails (executive coaching? fines? a ban from attending the Michigan game?) and how effective it will really be. In today's world, no leader should think his or her comments in a meeting behind closed doors won't see the light of day (just ask Paul Tudor Jones).

But Gee's comments are concerning for another reason, too. It appears that many of the controversial remarks Gee has made have to do with Ohio State sports, and football in particular. That may just be a coincidence, but the pattern of questionable remarks only adds to the impression that university presidents are far too consumed with sports and hold athletics to different standards. In the aftermath of the Penn State scandal, and at a time when Rutgers is embroiled in controversies over its basketball coach and athletic director, that's probably not the message any university—and particularly any university leader—wants to send.

Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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Jena McGregor | May 30, 2013