Ohio State's Gordon Gee was a lousy comedian, not a lousy president
During an interview a few years ago, University of Florida president Bernie Machen said something intriguing. "You have to take care of the docs and the jocks," Machen said. I asked what he meant. He explained the old higher-ed trope. Essentially, issues within a university's medical school and/or athletic program can get a president in outsize trouble because of the front-porch visibility of each. So, in situations regarding docs or jocks, a president must remain on high alert.
No university president knows that better today than Ohio State's Gordon Gee, whose loose lips while discussing matters regarding the jocks have now cost him his job. Gee will resign, effective July 1. While inside Columbus he will be regarded as an excellent administrator and fundraiser, to the wider world Gee's tenure at Ohio State will be remembered for two instances involving athletics and a microphone. The second was the speech at the Dec. 5 athletic council meeting that ultimately led to Gee's departure. The first probably will wind up in Gee's New York Times obituary far ahead of some of his more relevant achievements in the field of higher education. It came March 8, 2011 during a press conference to announce that Ohio State officials had caught football coach Jim Tressel lying to the NCAA and reported the violation. When asked if dismissing Tressel ever crossed Gee's mind, Gee said this: "I'm just hopeful the coach doesn't dismiss me."
It isn't fair, but that statement will be Gee's professional epitaph.
If Gee hadn't stammered out that poor attempt at a joke, his equally poor attempt at comedy on Dec. 5 wouldn't be ending his tenure at Ohio State. But because sports draws so much more attention than the much more important day-to-day operation of a major state university, here we are. (I write this with full knowledge that I am trivializing my own job. That's fine. If the nation straightens its priorities tomorrow, I'll begin looking for plumbing apprenticeships. Fortunately, the flow of you-know-what will never cease.) We're a sensitive society made more sensitive by the advent of technology that allows us to share our outrage and multiply it exponentially within minutes. You can blame the people who write and publish the stories all you want, but you are the ones who retweet them and respond and echo the calls for firings. In fact, that has become our standard response. "Fire him," we say. It's almost as if we've forgotten that the subject is an actual human being about to get separated from his job. Though, given the heft of the golden parachutes awarded to the presidents, athletic directors and coaches who usually get targeted, we probably shouldn't flagellate ourselves too much.
Gee did his job very well -- with one glaring exception. A president's most important task is raising funds by either cajoling the state legislature to appropriate funds or by convincing private citizens to give their hard-earned (or inherited -- it all spends the same) cash to the school. Gee was a master at the latter. The same goofy style that made him a PR director's nightmare in a press conference made him relatable to his individual constituents and donors. But the fear now, based on the reactions to the stand-up act first unearthed last week by The Associated Press, is that he may have offended enough people to turn off those donors and those potential donors. In essence, he made himself poisonous.
The routine began, as the acts of so many awful comedians do, with a tap of the microphone. "Is this thing working?" Gee asked as he took the floor at the athletic council meeting. Then Gee began talking about the weather. As everybody whose mom ever sent them off to dinner at someone else's house would agree, he probably would have been better off staying on that topic.
Gee would move on to discuss Notre Dame, Catholics in general, the Longhorn Network, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, Arkansas football coach Bret Bielema, the University of Louisville, the University of Kentucky and the schools of the SEC. Somehow, Gee managed to insult them all. It was a remarkable feat of foolishness.
But should it have cost an otherwise capable employee his job?
Gee should never have insulted Catholics. Let's get that out of the way first. Replace "Catholic" with "Jewish" or "Muslim," and Gee gets fired on the spot regardless of intent. Ripping major world religions -- and even minor ones -- is always a bad idea. But Gee's words -- while ill-advised -- come off on tape as little more than good-natured ribbing. At issue is whether the CEO of a large, publicly-funded institution has any sort of license to kid about these matters. I can certainly understand why many would say he does not. But Gee did not sound like a hateful person -- just a terrible comedian.
What makes this truly absurd is this doesn't get blown up if Gee doesn't go after two of sports' biggest sacred cows: Notre Dame and the SEC. Saying anything about Notre Dame football guarantees page views and television time thanks to a huge nationwide fan base and an even larger group that loves to complain that Notre Dame gets too much attention, while reading every blessed word written about the Fighting Irish. Meanwhile, the SEC has arguably the most passionate, volatile set of fan bases in American sports. When we in sports media see a major public figure bashing Notre Dame AND the SEC at the same time, it's like hitting the Web traffic lottery. Gee never stood a chance.
(Heck, I'm one of the people Gee targeted. Thursday, I documented my struggles with SEC-induced illiteracy. But I'm a white, Anglo-Saxon protestant. I'm essentially the butt of every socially acceptable joke out there, so I don't get offended by much.)
Officially, Gee will resign on July 1. Officially, he didn't get the ax. But whether he was forced out or whether he simply decided he couldn't deal with the double-secret probation and babysitters monitoring his every speaking engagement proposed by the Board of Trustees in its "remediation plan," Gee's stand-up routine cost him his job. That's a shame.
He was a lousy comedian. That didn't make him a lousy university president.