Ten years ago, their lives were about to crash. And it was all because of NCAA violations involving actions that soon will become permissible and even encouraged.
So it’s no surprise that Mike Adams, Daniel "Boom" Herron, DeVier Posey and Solomon Thomas have watched the NCAA change its stance on allowing college athletes to profit from their name, image and likeness (NIL) with more than a passing interest.
Those four, along with star quarterback Terrelle Pryor, were the Ohio State football players involved in the tattoo-and-memorabilia scandal that led to Jim Tressel’s forced exit as coach in May 2011.
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For selling memorabilia and/or receiving free tattoos, the players were suspended for five games by the NCAA, essentially ruining Ohio State’s 2011 season and causing sanctions that kept the undefeated 2012 team from playing for the national title. Pryor never again played for the Buckeyes.
Whenever new NIL rules are established after what promises to be a contentious process, college athletes will be able to earn money doing what the OSU players did.
It’s not hard to see the irony.
"Scandal is the new normal," Herron told The Dispatch with a chuckle.
Adams said the players still refer to themselves as the "Tat 5." They believe the NIL change is long overdue.
"I think it’s awesome," Adams said. "I love it."
Posey jokingly called himself and the other four as "pioneers" for NIL, not that it was their intention. But they did see themselves as exploited athletes who saw everyone else but them monetarily profit off their labor.
Posey remembers going into a campus Barnes & Noble and seeing about 15 or 20 jerseys with his No. 8 on sale for about $90. The wide receiver did the math in his head, knowing he wouldn’t get a penny.
"That’s like four times what I had in my bank account at the time," he said.
As a sophomore communications major, Posey gave a 30-minute presentation in class arguing that college athletes should be treated like Olympic athletes. They ought to be able to make money, he said, that would be put into a trust fund accessible after their college eligibility ended.
The rules have been liberalized since Posey and his teammates left Ohio State. Cost-of-attendance stipends hadn’t been implemented then. Colleges couldn’t even provide players meals, only limited snacks. Posey remembers subsisting partly on ramen noodles.
"The system was basically the equivalent of cooking a nice steak and waving in front of your dog's face and expecting them not to try to eat it," said Adams, an all-Big Ten offensive tackle.
In that context, it’s understandable why the players did what they did, particularly in selling their rings.
"The only thing that I felt bad about was getting rid of a ring," said Adams, who, like Posey, eventually repurchased his ring. "I didn’t care for one second about how the NCAA felt. I didn't think that it was something that pertained to them because it was mine and I earned it and that's that."
Thomas said the tattoos presented a different issue.
"Getting free tattoos was a violation," he said. "I definitely knew that. You can't get free food. You can't get free stuff. But the gray area of something being mine owning something and wanting to sell it I did not realize that that was a violation."
When NIL earnings are permitted, players likely could sign marketing deals with a tattoo parlor or any business in which that kind of transaction would be permissible.
The "Tat 5" players were in school just when social media platforms such as Twitter and Instagram were catching on. That made players more accessible to fans. It was clear to the players they could have made plenty if allowed to profit from NIL.
Adams believes he could have made at least $5,000 a week from autographs, appearances or memorabilia at Ohio State.
That would have paled compared to Pryor’s earning potential, he said.
"That kid could have made millions of dollars," Adams said.
Instead, the players got punished. It was a brutal time for them.
"That was my first bout with depression," Posey said.
Adams, a Dublin Coffman graduate, remembers TV news vans parked outside his home.
"You’re talking about being 20 or 21 years old and having the whole sports world turn against you," he said.
"Until my father passed away in 2014," Thomas said, "it was the hardest thing I ever had to go through."
The players said they were subjected to intense questioning by NCAA investigators and forced to divulge private information, including financial records.
"It was so stressful," Adams said. "It was terrible, being young adults and the way they treated us and the (expletive) that they put us through interrogations every day for weeks and weeks via phone or in a room. Treating us like we have literally (committed) some type of felony or crazy crime, (like we’d) just killed someone.
"They're the judge, jury and executioner. I think it's bull. I think the NCAA really needs a whole overhaul, top to bottom. I just think it's an outdated system designed to take advantage of these kids and capitalize off of them every chance they can."
A series of legal losses and legislation on the state level spurred the NCAA to reverse its steadfast opposition to allowing players to benefit from NIL. Better to accept reform and help shape it than get steamrolled by it. Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith was co-chair of the NCAA’s working group on NIL.
The tricky part will be establishing rules, and even the "Tat 5" players don’t have the same view about that. Adams said he favors the ability to profit off NIL without restrictions. Thomas believes regulation is necessary. His suggestion would be to use Ohio State’s compliance department as a sort of middleman and gatekeeper.
"If you open up the gates, you might have a lot of corruption that comes through," said Thomas, a defensive lineman at OSU. "Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for the players making money off their likeness. But I know there are a lot of leeches. At 18, you’re very naïve."
However NIL protocols are eventually determined, the players whose lives were upended a decade ago are pleased that reform is coming.
"I’m glad they’re making these changes and there’s going to be an opportunity for guys to get a piece of the pie," said Herron, who ran for almost 3,000 yards as a Buckeyes running back.
"I feel no kid should have to get suspended or go through those hard times or the embarrassment and all the stuff we went through."