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The Semiotics of Sleaze




John Calipari and Jim Tressel are two of the sleaziest coaches in sleazy business of big time college sports. “Everyone” knows this about Calipari, who has an extensive history of maintaining a conveniently comprehensive ignorance regarding the extensive shenanigans going on at the programs where he’s coached. Yet despite more than a few striking parallels with Calipari, Tressel has — or at least had until a couple of weeks ago — a “sterling reputation” as a fine Christian gentleman, a molder of young men in the tradition of Thomas Arnold, who 150 years ago first gave ideological content to the idea that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton — a pernicious bit of nonsense that Anglophile American universities have been repeating ever since.

Jon Chait ($ link) puzzles over the Legend of St. Tressel of the Wayward Recruits:

Perhaps you’ve had this experience. A fan of some other school will ask you what you think of Tressel. You say you respect his ability as a coach, but he’s kind of dirty. And they look at you like you’re some crazed partisan. Tressel? The Senator? Dirty? Come on.

We all knew it. The evidence was plain as day, right? Maurice Clarrett, spilling the beans and then recanting. Troy Smith. Youngstown State. A.J. Hawk and Nick Mangold reporting thousands of dollars in cash stolen from their apartment. (The excuse was that they come from upper-middle-class families. For those of you who have never come into contact with an upper-middle-class college student, their families tend to avail them of funds via bank accounts and credit cards, not golden handshakes. Remember seeing all those well-off guys on fraternity row, walking around with giant pimp rolls of cash? Neither do I.)

Then, of course, Terrelle Pryor, with his transparently ludicrous story of car dealerships that keep giving him loaner cars to replace his car that keeps breaking down. Either Buckeye players have been getting paid off consistently, or else there’s a massive conspiracy to create this impression.

Anyway, somehow none of this ever took hold. The national media narrative of Jim Tressel, Solid Citizen remained firmly in place. It seemed nothing short of Tressel being caught on video peddling drugs to schoolchildren would dislodge that image. And even that he could probably wriggle out of. (I could see it now: “I was there to warn them of the dangers of drug use and encourage them to stay in school.”)

My sense is that one significant factor in the different reputations the two men have acquired has to do with the cultural signaling performed by their respective self-presentations. Basically, John Calipari looks and dresses like a connected guy, while Tressel presents himself, semiotically speaking, as a cross between a stern but fair high school principal and a minister in a mainline Protestant denomination.

Clothes, as the old saying has it, make the man (the academic version of this aphorism is “Think Yiddish, dress British”).

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