Some have portrayed Baker as a rogue booster who committed a single forbidden act. But Tressel and Ohio State had reason to suspect that Baker had violated NCAA rules almost a year earlier. The Dayton Daily News reported that Chris Gamble, a cornerback and wide receiver who now plays for the NFL's Panthers, was paid by Baker in the summer of 2003 for a job that consisted of little more than showing up and signing autographs. The Columbus Dispatch wrote that Gamble accompanied Baker on golf outings and even called Baker at halftime of the '04 Fiesta Bowl.
Baker isn't an Ohio State grad, but he owned a share of a luxury box at Ohio Stadium. On the wall of his Poly-Care office, Baker hung a picture of Lee Tressel, for whom he played at Baldwin-Wallace.
Ohio State's investigation of Gamble's relationship with Baker found no wrongdoing; school officials accepted Gamble's explanation that his job included tasks other than signing autographs. Still, Tressel could have forbidden his players to interact with a die-hard booster such as Baker. Instead, about a year after Gamble's relationship with Baker was brought to Tressel's attention, Smith went to Poly-Care looking for a job and left with $500. After a tip from Webster, the university investigated and suspended Smith for the 2004 Alamo Bowl; the NCAA later banned him for a second game.
The Clarett and Baker scandals were further evidence that Tressel was, at best, woefully ignorant of questionable behavior by his players and not aggressive enough in preventing it. At worst, he was a conduit for improper benefits, as Clarett alleged. The latter interpretation is suggested by a story that has long circulated among college coaches and was confirmed to SI by a former colleague of Tressel's from Earle Bruce's staff at Ohio State in the mid-1980s. One of Tressel's duties then was to organize and run the Buckeyes' summer camp. Most of the young players who attended it would never play college football, but a few were top prospects whom Ohio State was recruiting. At the end of camp, attendees bought tickets to a raffle with prizes such as cleats and a jersey. According to his fellow assistant, Tressel rigged the raffle so that the elite prospects won—a potential violation of NCAA rules. Says the former colleague, who asked not to be identified because he still has ties to the Ohio State community, "In the morning he would read the Bible with another coach. Then, in the afternoon, he would go out and cheat kids who had probably saved up money from mowing lawns to buy those raffle tickets. That's Jim Tressel."
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.