SI investigation (cont.)
On the corner of West Broad Street and Rodgers Avenue in West Columbus, in a neighborhood appropriately called the Bottoms, sits a shuttered storefront. It has been vacant for some time, but a spray-painted board still hangs above the door, informing passersby that the building was once home to Dudley'z Tattoos & Body Piercing.
Ohio State fans are more familiar with another tattoo parlor, Fine Line Ink, a few miles west. That is where Pryor and several current teammates traded signed memorabilia for tattoos and cash. Buckeyes supporters have been led to believe that the wrongdoing was limited to Pryor and his five suspended teammates and took place only at Fine Line Ink beginning in 2008. "We're very fortunate that we do not have a systemic problem in our program," Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said last December. "This is isolated to these young men and isolated to this particular instance."
In reality, Ohio State players have been trading memorabilia -- including items bearing Tressel's signature -- since at least the coach's second season, according to multiple sources. The number of players involved is also much higher than what has previously been disclosed.
Dustin Halko was an artist at Dudley'z from the fall of 2002 until early '04, and he says that players regularly visited the shop and handed over signed jerseys, gloves, magazines and other goods in exchange for tattoos. Halko says he personally inked at least 10 Ohio State players -- he clearly remembers tattooing guard T.J. Downing, tight end Louis Irizarry and wide receiver Chris Vance -- and in return he was given autographed memorabilia. (Downing denies ever entering Dudley'z and says that if his memorabilia was there it had been stolen out of his locker; Irizarry and Vance could not be reached for comment despite extensive efforts to contact them.) Halko says that more players, including Clarett (who declined to comment), traded with other artists, and he estimates that at least 15 players violated NCAA rules at Dudley'z just as Pryor & Co. did at Fine Line Ink. Two associates of Halko's who hung out at the shop -- they asked not be named because they fear reprisals from Ohio State fans -- confirmed Halko's account that players commonly swapped memorabilia for tattoo work. One said he saw "at least five" Buckeyes conduct such transactions; the other said "at least seven."
"What they brought in depended on the kind of tattoo they wanted," says Halko. "If it was just something small, it might be a signed magazine or something like that. If it was a full sleeve, they might bring in a jersey." (Tattoos range in price from less than $100 for simple designs to several thousand dollars for more elaborate ones like the full-sleeve inkings of some Buckeyes.) Halko says those working in the shop preferred receiving items with multiple autographs. His most memorable acquisition was a scarlet-and-gray training jacket with between 10 and 15 signatures on it, including Tressel's. Halko says he also traded tattoo work for a magazine bearing the coach's autograph.
According to Halko and both of his associates, Dudley'z became a social hub for the athletes. On a Friday or Saturday night a dozen or more Buckeyes could be found in the large back room of the parlor. They danced to music spun by a deejay and sipped drinks or smoked marijuana that was provided by people at the shop.
Darrell (Dudley) Ross, who owned Dudley'z, initially told SI that Halko was lying in saying that Ohio State players were tattooed there and partied there, and that Halko was "just trying to get his name in the paper." Ross later acknowledged that he might have tattooed some Buckeyes but said that Halko did not and that the players always paid for the work. Ross said that Halko worked at Dudley'z for "three or four days" and said of himself, "Look, I am a career criminal, but I've only been convicted of one felony. I'm not a drug addict like [Halko]."
Megan Zonars, who says she lived in an apartment above Dudley'z for about six months beginning in June 2003, contradicts Ross's account that Halko was employed only briefly at the tattoo parlor. She told SI that Halko worked at the parlor "every day" while she lived there. Like the two associates of Halko's who spoke to SI, she also confirmed Halko's account that many Buckeyes frequented the shop. "I met Chris Vance and Maurice Clarett and others," she said. "And it wasn't just [Halko] who needled guys. A lot of people worked on Buckeyes."
Halko does have a troubling background and, like Clarett, is easily impeached by those unsettled by his allegations. In 2005 he was found guilty of assault and sentenced to 180 days in jail. In '08 he was convicted of misdemeanor theft and possession of drug paraphernalia, and last year he violated a protection order. In March he was sentenced to a year in prison after being convicted of three felonies: attempted burglary, breaking and entering, and domestic violence. He spoke to SI in a series of phone calls from Noble Correctional Institution in Caldwell, Ohio. He said that in addition to his legal trouble, he has had a drug problem in the past, "but I'm not lying. Why should I lie?"
After Halko left Dudley'z in 2004 he opened his own shop, which he operated for about a year. Then he pleaded guilty to assault and served time in prison. After his release, he bounced around, eventually landing a job at, of all places, Fine Line Ink, in 2009. Halko was at first surprised to see Ohio State football players regularly come through the door, but it made sense. Dudley'z had closed, and the Buckeyes needed a new hangout.
Halko worked at Fine Line Ink for only a few weeks and says he did not witness the transactions involving the six Ohio State players who would be suspended. Nor did he see the drug trafficking that would lead federal prosecutors to indict owner Edward Rife. In a plea deal last Friday, Rife pleaded guilty to money laundering and conspiracy and possession with intent to distribute 100 kilograms or more of marijuana, offenses that carry a maximum sentence of 60 years in prison and a fine of up to $2.5 million.
In its letter to Ohio State, the Department of Justice linked Rife, 31, to Ross, the Dudley'z owner. The letter listed transactions between the two involving six pieces of signed memorabilia. There was also a footnote: "Ross is a friend of Edward Rife, who deals in sports memorabilia." Asked about his relationship with Rife, Ross told SI he knew him but couldn't comment further.
On what would be his last day at Fine Line, Halko says Rife accused him of stealing some cameras, which Halko denied. He also says that Rife, the man who would become close with many of Ohio State's best players, then pointed a gun at him and ordered some of his associates to take him outside and beat him. Halko says he ended up in Mount Carmel West Hospital with multiple injuries, a description confirmed by one of Halko's associates. Rife's lawyer, Stephen Palmer, told SI that Rife denies pulling a gun on Halko or having him assaulted.
On the second floor of the nondescript building that houses Fine Line Ink, Rife created the ultimate Ohio State-themed man cave. Huge photographs hung on walls painted scarlet and gray. Images of Hayes and former Michigan coach Bo Schembechler sandwiched a picture of Ohio Stadium. There were shots from the 2003 Fiesta Bowl, where the Buckeyes won the national title, including one of Tressel. Signature-covered jerseys were displayed, and on a small table was an autographed helmet encased in glass. A large sectional couch sat in front of a big flat-screen television that was hooked up to a PlayStation3.
"It was a cool place to hang out," says a former Rife employee. "Everybody could just relax and have a good time. The players were catered to. Eddie would tell people, 'Go get them some chicken' or 'Run to the store and get them something to drink.' Whatever they wanted." The former employee, who worked for Rife from the fall of 2008 until last summer, agreed to speak to SI on condition that he remain anonymous; he fears that Rife or one of his associates will seek retribution for his disclosures. He will be referred to in this story by the pseudonym Ellis.
Ohio State has conceded that six current players committed an NCAA violation by trading memorabilia for tattoos or cash at Fine Line Ink: Pryor, tackle Mike Adams, running back Dan Herron, wide receiver DeVier Posey, defensive end Solomon Thomas and linebacker Jordan Whiting. Ellis, who spent time in and around the tattoo parlor for nearly 20 months, says that in addition to those six, he witnessed nine other active players swap memorabilia or give autographs for tattoos or money. Those players were defensive back C.J. Barnett, linebacker Dorian Bell, running back Jaamal Berry, running back Bo DeLande, defensive back Zach Domicone, linebacker Storm Klein, linebacker Etienne Sabino, defensive tackle John Simon and defensive end Nathan Williams. Ohio State declined to make any of its current players available to respond to SI.
Ellis claims that two players whose eligibility expired at the close of the 2010 season -- safety Jermale Hines and cornerback Devon Torrence -- also conducted at least one transaction with Rife involving memorabilia or autographs before the season ended. When asked by SI to respond, Hines, who was picked by the Rams in the fifth round of April's NFL draft, said, "I did nothing illegal." Torrence's agent, Jim Ivler, said his client "is adamant that the allegations are false. ... He can tell you where he got all his tattoos and it was not [at Fine Line Ink]."
From the 2008 team, Ellis alleges that cornerback Donald Washington traded memorabilia for tattoos. Washington now plays for the Chiefs; his agent, Neil Cornrich, did not return SI's calls requesting comment.
Among those whose Ohio State careers ended after the 2009 season, Rose, Small, defensive end Thaddeus Gibson, running back Jermil Martin, wide receiver Lamaar Thomas and defensive lineman Doug Worthington made trades or sold memorabilia before their eligibility expired, according to Ellis. Gibson, now with the 49ers, and Worthington, now with the Buccaneers, declined comment through their agent. Repeated attempts to locate Martin, including calls, Internet searches and Facebook messages to past friends and coaches, were unsuccessful. Thomas, who now plays for the University of New Mexico, said in a statement from that school's athletic office, "I'm aware of the investigation at Ohio State. I have not been implicated for a reason -- because I've done nothing wrong." When asked about Buckeyes selling their players-only merchandise, Small admitted to The Lantern that he had done so and said that "everybody was doing it."
Rose has no regrets. "I knew how much money that the school was making," he says. "I always heard about how Ohio State had the biggest Nike budget. I was struggling, my mom was struggling. ... It was just something that I had to do. I was in a hard spot. ... [Other] guys were doing it for the same reasons. The university doesn't really help. Technically we knew it was wrong, but a lot of those guys are from the inner city and we didn't have much, and we had to go on the best we could. I couldn't call home to ask my mom to help me out."
Ohio State's conclusion that only six players broke the rules is based in part on a list of the items the Department of Justice seized in raids of Fine Line Ink and Rife's home on May 1, 2010. But that list, which mentioned 42 football-related items that Rife bought, received or acquired in trades from players, covered only a small fraction of what he got from the Buckeyes, Ellis says. "Eddie had storage units all over town," he says, "and he also sold some stuff off to people." (Through Palmer, his lawyer, Rife declined to comment on his involvement with Ohio State players.) Ellis estimates that Pryor alone brought in more than 20 items, including game-worn shoulder pads, multiple helmets, Nike cleats, jerseys, game pants and more. One day Ellis asked Pryor how he was able to take so much gear from the university's equipment room. Ellis says the quarterback responded, "I get whatever I want."
The Department of Justice alerted Ohio State to a transaction in which an unnamed player gave Rife a watch and four tickets to the 2010 Rose Bowl in exchange for a Chevy Tahoe. That player, Ellis says, was Martin: "Jermil came in to the shop and said, 'Are we doing this deal on this truck?' They went outside, and Eddie signed the title over and Jermil shook his hand and off he went." Martin did not give Rife anything at that moment, Ellis says, but a short time later Rife said in a telephone call to Ellis that he was in Pasadena and that Martin had gotten him tickets.
Martin was particularly close to Rife, Ellis says; about a year earlier Rife had given Martin a different car, a 2004 Jaguar sedan. "Eddie tossed him the keys, and off Jermil drove," Ellis says. (Through Palmer, Rife declined to comment.)
Ellis showed SI pictures of players -- Pryor, Gibson, Herron and Solomon Thomas -- being tattooed or showing off their artwork. Rife appears in one photo with a player. Ellis also produced a photo of 11 plastic bags filled with what appears to be marijuana; he says the photo was taken at Fine Line Ink. The letter the DOJ sent to Ohio State in December stated, "There is no allegation that any of these players were involved in or had knowledge of Mr. Rife's drug trafficking activities." Ellis says that is true but that he did witness four other Buckeyes trade memorabilia for weed. Three of those transactions involved a small amount of the drug, he says, but in one instance a player departed with what Ellis was told was a pound. (Rife's lawyer denies that his client provided marijuana to any players.)
Like Dudley'z years earlier, Fine Line Ink became the players' hangout. They gathered on the second floor, turned on the PlayStation and stayed for hours. Rife may have been about a decade older than most of the players, but, says Ellis, "Eddie was cool. He was funny and fun to be around. The players liked him." Rife regularly accompanied players to bars near campus; he took some to an MMA fight at the LC Pavilion; in May 2009 three players joined Rife at Cruisefest Nationals, an auto show. According to Ellis, Rife set up a mobile tattoo station and then shouted at potential customers, "Come and meet the Buckeyes."
How open a secret was it that scores of Buckeyes were hanging out at Fine Line? Ellis says players went in and out of the tattoo parlor so often that kids carrying paper and pen would bang on the door and front window and shout, "Are the Buckeyes here?" Employees had to shoo them away.
From fall 2002 through last year, first at Dudley'z and then at Fine Line Ink, at least 28 Ohio State players are either known or alleged to have traded or sold memorabilia in violation of NCAA rules. It is a staggering number, a level of wrongdoing that would seem hard to miss for a coach and an entire athletic department -- one that includes an NCAA compliance staff of at least six people. Yet the university trusted the coach, and the coach says he knew nothing before April 2010, when the Columbus lawyer tipped him off in an e-mail.
He was ignorant of it all.
In August the NCAA's Committee on Infractions will review the alleged rules violations committed by Tressel and his players. Tressel violated NCAA bylaw 10.1 -- Unethical Conduct, one of the cornerstones of NCAA rulebook -- three times: first by failing to act when tipped off about the tattoo scandal; again last fall, by signing a standard form given to all coaches declaring that he knew of no violations; and then, last December, by not being forthcoming with school officials. Tressel's violations will almost certainly lead to sanctions that will follow him to any school that might hire him, making it highly unlikely that he will coach a major college program again. Like Woody Hayes, the ruination at the end of his Ohio State career will tail him forever.
The university's search for a permanent replacement will surely include a call to former Florida coach Urban Meyer, who like Tressel was an assistant under Earle Bruce. Meyer has bristled at talk that he would become the Buckeyes' coach, and he and other top candidates will probably wait and see what the Committee on Infractions decides. Despite Gene Smith's insistence to the contrary, the school had a systemic problem and is likely to be hit with heavy sanctions, including the loss of several scholarships.
Ohio State officials will argue that the school should be spared, in part because they got rid of Tressel, the head of the program that has been so tainted by wrongdoing. For years, Ohio State benefited from Tressel's choirboy image. Now, the university is likely to paint him as a huge problem that has been eliminated for the betterment of the athletic department.
It is not the noblest of tactics, but it adheres to an axiom of big-time college football, one that Jim Tressel has heeded for years: You do whatever it takes to win.