Sometimes, taking a risk on a star player can result in leaders’ greatest triumphs. But it can also lead to their downfall.
That’s at least in part what happened to Jim Tressel—Ohio sports icon, college football legend and the sweater vest’s most famous fan. The now former Ohio State University football coach resigned Monday amid an NCAA investigation into a tattoo parlor scandal in which star Buckeyes players, including top recruit Terrelle Pryor, the team’s quarterback, traded team memorabilia for cash and discounted body ink. Although Tressel was aware of the improprieties and traded emails on the subject, he did not report the incident to OSU higher ups as his contract mandates.
But that wasn’t the only way Tressel reportedly watched out for Pryor, widely seen as the top football prospect of 2008. According to reports, Tressel apparently shielded him from reporters and made excuses for him. He reportedly made a different set of rules for Pryor, allowing him to show up late and miss workouts, “hitching his wagon” to Pryor in the process, as one ESPN analyst put it. When Pryor and his teammates were suspended for trading OSU memorabilia for tattoos, they didn’t have to miss the all-important bowl game, but instead were benched for the first few games of the next season.
The lure of protecting a star is overwhelming for many. Because leaders’ performance is so dependent on the skills of the people who work for them, the temptation to proceed with blind faith is often too great to ignore. Whether it’s a manager on Wall Street who looks the other way when a rainmaker makes an overly risky trade or a university administrator who asks too few questions when a respected scientist’s work seems too good to be true, there’s a common instinct to protect the star in order to protect themselves. The winning record, the outsized profits or the greater funding helps to embellish their own performance record.
Of course, leaders are apt to say they didn’t know what was going on. Or, as was the case for Tressel, they might say they didn’t let on what they knew because they thought they had to keep information confidential. In less severe cases, leaders might claim they wanted to give the player a second chance, or that they needed to protect him from his own immaturity. In reality, what’s all too clear is that they’re trying to protect their own record, their own bonus or their own legend.
Stars are called that for a reason—they shine so brightly that they can blind the people who lead them into ignoring potential consequences and risking way too much. Outstanding players are great to have around, but leaders who depend on them too much risk dimming their own careers. Or worse, having them fall back to earth.
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