It seems Gordon Gee is another victim of political correctness run amok. The President of The Ohio State University announced his retirement this week amid controversy after a taped conversation from an OSU athletic council meeting was made public.
During the meeting, Gee jabbed Notre Dame over their initial discussions to join the Big Ten conference over a decade ago. "The fathers are holy on Sunday, and they're holy hell on the rest of the week. You just can't trust those damn Catholics on a Thursday or a Friday," he said. Gee also responded to jokes made by SEC fans regarding the Big Ten's decision to have 14 members, saying, "You tell the SEC when they can learn to read and write, then they can figure out what we're doing." The Universities of Louisville and Kentucky also found themselves at the butt of Gee's jokes, in which he implied that their academic standards were below par.
Before making the decision to resign, Gee issued a mea cupla: "The comments I made were just plain wrong, and in no way do they reflect what the university stands for," he said. "They were a poor attempt at humor and entirely inappropriate."
As it became clear the comments would go public, Gee set out on the apology tour, many of which were accepted. Others were less forgiving. Louisville coach Rick Pitino had this to say:
"I have a major problem with [Gee], not with Ohio State. I have a major problem with him and he's a pompous ass for making those statements. President Gee is trying to crack jokes and denigrate other people. In Louisville, I can't speak for Kentucky, I'll let John [Calipari] speak for them, but in Louisville, we don't take kindly to those comments and we were very insulted by it. And when people have to make jokes and denigrate others to get laughter, that means they're truly ignorant of the facts."
It would be interesting to know if Pitino has ever attended a Louisville tailgate and not heard far worse comments made about Kentucky from his own side. Then again, one could argue that Gee should be held to a higher standard as the president of one of the largest universities in the country.
But should he? First, the comments were made in a closed meeting with only Ohio State personnel. No complaint has ever been levied against him that alleges he's acted with bias against Catholics, or refused to allow Southern students to attend the University because he's concerned about their level of literacy. In fact, the outpouring of support for Gee from the Ohio State student population in the wake of his retirement suggests the opposite. Notre Dame, even more so than other larger Catholic universities like DePaul, is defined by its Catholicism. They are, perhaps, even boastful about it. Therefore, it's fair game when it comes to rivalry jeering.
Second, it's kind of his job. One of Gee's primary functions as president is fundraiser. It's doubtful that "let's get some new chemistry equipment" would play as well as "let's get that team up north!" when wooing donors at a major university with an intense athletics fan base. In a sense, don't hate the player, hate the game -- literally. It's one thing to take issue with the super university sports structure that often appears to value athletics above academics. And perhaps Gee is perpetuating that. But also keep in mind that at Ohio State over 1,000 athletes are supported by the athletic department -- scholarships that wouldn't be possible without revenues from football and basketball and extensive fundraising efforts. These are students that, as the NCAA ad campaign points out, will never "go pro" in their respective sports. That's to say nothing of the money he has brought in for academic scholarships and initiatives.
What was notably absent from the fallout was an outpouring of feigned offense from Catholics. Even the Catholic bulldog Bill Donohue suggested that everyone "take a deep breath" and realize "what [Gee] said was made in jest. Was it dumb? For someone of his stature, yes." But not bigoted.
This whole affair could be indicative of Catholics' ability to take, and even make, a joke about themselves. It does seem that Christianity is the one religion that's entirely fair game when it comes to public ridicule. Without delving into why this is, it is a reminder that the ability to hear speech and not take it personally is an essential quality of a society which values free expression.
It seems fairly clear that Gee's comments were harmless banter. Officials at Notre Dame who accepted his apology must have agreed. As a Mormon, he's probably intimately familiar in the role of punch line. Just check out the most popular musical Broadway.
In the end, it's difficult to see why Gee left his post in such haste. By my count, the outcry was relatively mild -- and probably would have been even less so if this revelation had come during football season. Did the Notre Dame comments really cause such great offense and damage to the Catholic identity that the only adequate remedy is for one of the most popular and effective university presidents in the country to resign?
The knee-jerk jump to offense reaction of the Ohio State Board doesn't do anything to help Catholics and it doesn't do anything to help our seemingly increasing hyper-sensitivity to speech.