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Gordon Gee Isn't Retiring Because He Told the Truth

The Ohio State president is stepping down because the very qualities that supposedly endeared him to Ohio State are the qualities he can't acknowledge in others

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Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

He was just telling the truth. That's the defense that's already springing up from some quarters about Gordon Gee now that he's in the process of "retiring" after insulting approximately half of Western Civilization during a December meeting at the university. He was simply laying out the facts, according to Ramzy Nasrallah at Eleven Warriors.

At 69, Gee is quite aware of and extremely comfortable with the skills he has, so you'll have to forgive him for speaking unguardedly as he did last December when he dropped a series of truth bombs during an OSU athletic council meeting. ...

And that is the only truly alarming component of Gee's most recent comments: That they were made at an official university function, categorically made accessible to the public through FOIA.

I don't entirely dismiss the argument on behalf of Gee, at least not the honesty with which it's being made. (I have a rule about only debating points of view that I respect.) I don't brush it off because I understand having a great deal of admiration for your university's president. To this day, I still think that John Palms is one of the greatest presidents the University of South Carolina has ever seen. And I can still give at least a passable imitation of his Netherlands-to-Charleston accent. His final year as president of the university was my senior year, so there's also a sense that we left at the same time.

And I feel very badly for Gee that he lost his wife, as Nasrallah touchingly documents, and I'm sure that Gee feels very strongly about Ohio State because of the sympathy he found there. But sympathy and institutional pride are not qualities that are unique to Gee or Ohio State -- and Gee seems to have very little concern about those qualities when it comes to his comments about other people.

There's also the little matter of the "truth bombs" that Gee was throwing out there -- just how truthful they really are, and whether the president of a major university has any business saying them. For example, Nasrallah says:

The president of a top 20 public university made a cheeky literacy joke at the expense of an athletic conference comprised largely of historically mediocre schools.

You know what's actually kind of amusing about this paragraph? In the very same list that Nasrallah links to, the University of Florida is ranked one spot ahead of Ohio State. Georgia's at No. 21, three spots behind Ohio State. Texas A&M clocks in at No. 23. Alabama is No. 32 and Auburn is No. 37. Missouri, the prized "get" for the B1G that Gordon Gee talked about as a "like-minded" institution, is No. 42. And f we zoom out to include private universities as well as publics, Vanderbilt is No. 17. Florida then falls to No. 54 and Ohio State is No. 56.

That's seven of the 14 schools in the SEC that are either rated more highly or right around Ohio State, or rated more highly than the Missouri team that Gee said would be welcome in the B1G, or are named "Missouri." So what, exactly, constitutes "an athletic conference comprised largely of historically mediocre schools"? (This doesn't even deal with the fact that a wide swath of commentators and academics who have looked at the U.S. News rankings have come to the conclusion that they're a joke.)

And let's look again at that "cheeky literacy joke," shall we? "You tell the SEC when they can learn to read and write, then they can figure out what we're doing."

The question here was about the fact that the B1G still calls itself "the Big Ten" despite having 12 and, soon enough, 14 schools. Gee could have responded with something in kind, like "the SEC doesn't have a number in its name so they can avoid counting." That would have been good for the goose, good for the gander.

Instead, Gee seemed to reach for a joke that plays on an ugly stereotype, and one that's still acceptable among a sizable section of the nation's academic elite: the idea that Southerners are backwards, they can't read and write, etc. The idea that the South -- the modern, dynamic, diverse South -- is a backwater with largely mediocre universities. (This is not to say there aren't certain areas where some of the negatives about the South are still on sometimes-vivid display, but it is to say that tagging the entire region with those stereotypes is ignoring the last 50 years of history.)

In fairness to Gee, maybe he didn't mean to invoke that ugliness with his joke. But that's what Southerners heard, and that's why it stung.

It wasn't clever, and it wasn't speaking truth that people just didn't want to hear. It was, to borrow the word that that Nasrallah uses to dismiss some of Gee's critics, lazy.

- - -

I got the word about Gordon Gee's retirement today in a 21st-century way -- and I even had to read to do it -- when it came over my phone as an alert from USA Today. The text of the alert was: "BREAKING: Ohio State president retiring after Catholic flap." You will notice the distinct lack of any reference to the SEC or Bret Bielema there.

The jokes about the SEC and the other schools and Bielema were survivable. They were embarrassing, to be sure, but they were not something that was going to cause any harm to Gordon Gee, especially if he didn't have a history of saying disparaging things about others.

But when you start to take punches at someone's faith, you're crossing the lines of what is or should be acceptable in American discourse. And while the remarks about the fathers at Notre Dame being "holy hell on the rest of the week" were the most colorful, they weren't the worst.

"You just can't trust those damn Catholics on a Thursday or a Friday, and so, literally, I can say that," said Gee, a Mormon.

"I can say that." Why, exactly, can Gee say that? Is it because he comes from a religion that has a similar history of facing persecution and bigotry in this country as the persecution and bigotry that faced Catholicism? We forget, because we tend to have a short memory in this country, that it was not that long ago that a candidate for president had to overcome the notion that being a Catholic meant he would take his orders from the Pope.

Almost a fifth of the people in Ohio are Catholics, by most counts, and while that's a few percentage points below the national average, it's still a lot of the people that are helping to pay for Gordon Gee's salary and the budget of the university he's running. To cavalierly dismiss them as "damn" people who "you can't trust" isn't an innocent little joke. Publicly mocking someone because of their religion never is. And if that's just Gordon Gee being Gordon Gee, then that alone is a monumental statement about the man's character.

- - -

That's what's most telling about the comments Gee made in the AP tape: They are completely in character. The sheer volume of offensive statements is something new, perhaps, but this is precisely the kind of person Gordon Gee is.

Jerry Hinnen took the time to go back over a timeline of Gee's gaffes. And if you take out the spending extravagance (which is really not that rare among university presidents) and the NCAA stuff, what you have left is a pattern of someone whose jokes are always at someone else's expense. Smaller universities, Poles and Bret Bielema -- over and over again.

That does matter. We have gotten to a point in American society somehow where we throw out everything, short of and sometimes including criminality, but the narrowest possibly definition of how someone does their job. And maybe for an administrative assistant or a journalist or the guy who runs accounting, that's fine. But when you take on a title like president of a public university, you are becoming the public face of that institution, and what you say and the opinions you express in public are important.

And Gee has chosen in recent years to point a too-high portion of his comments at demeaning those who weren't like him, whether supporters of Southern universities or Polish infantrymen or Catholics. When you do something like that over and over, it's not an endearing quirk; it's a character flaw and a failure of the basic responsibility of a public servant to empathize with those he's serving, a lack of the very sympathy that made Gee regard Ohio State so warmly.

No, Gordon Gee didn't retire Tuesday because he was speaking uncomfortable truths. He lost his job because, even as the most powerful man at one of the more prestigious universities in the country, he still felt the need to punch down.