Bledsoe, Kentucky, And The NCAA’s “Strict Liability”

Posted by jstevrtc on September 14th, 2010

The online arm of the Birmingham News, AL.com, reported earlier today that former Kentucky guard Eric Bledsoe’s official high school transcript and the “grade reports” from two of his Algebra III courses showed differing final grades. Specifically, the transcript states that he earned a grade of A in both sections of two nine-week long Algebra III courses, but the grade reports from those sections of the course show that Bledsoe was credited with a C in the first section and a B in the second. The reason this is a problem is, as the AL.com article explains, if you calculate Bledsoe’s GPA using the grades on his official transcript (the A’s), you get a 2.5, which makes him NCAA-eligible. If you calculate it with the C and B from the grade reports, Bledsoe’s GPA comes out to a 2.4375 — just short of the minimum score required for qualification.

If this grade discrepancy is true, the NCAA will want to know who knew about it, and when.

This allegation evidently comes ahead of a report that’s supposed to surface soon from an independent law firm hired by the Birmingham school system to investigate Bledsoe’s eligibility, and specifically the documentation of his academic performance at two high schools in the area. We’ll obviously have a lot to say about that when it appears. For now, though, we feel this new information brings up a few interesting questions:

  1. What is a “grade report?”
  2. How and when could there be a discrepancy?
  3. Is Kentucky (or any other school) expected to go beyond looking at official school transcripts of players when assessing their eligibility, and should the school be punished if information later emerges that implicates the player?

The first question is easy. A grade report is the official document sent from a student’s teacher/professor to the registrar or equivalent school official saying what grade the student earned in the class, the grade that is to be documented and placed on the official transcript for all time.

As for the second question, the only way there could be a conflict in what’s on a grade report and what’s recorded in the transcript is if there is confusion of some kind that results in incorrect documentation, OR if there is foul play. If some naughtiness occurred, when did it occur? Was it before Bledsoe’s college basketball career started, or was it after the media inquiries began? Which marks were changed — the transcript grades or the grade report grades? We can only hope that the upcoming report from the independent attorneys can shed some light on this particular facet.

The third question is the most interesting and most important. To our knowledge, the athletic departments of colleges and universities use an athlete’s official high school transcript when assessing his or her eligibility. Indeed, this is what’s done for non-athletes, as well. The official transcript helps to determine an applicant’s worthiness for admission to a school and/or whether or not they get those scholarships for which they applied. In other words, the transcript is the gold standard. It is to be taken at face value. No school would delve farther than this in determining a recruit’s academic record, because there’s no need to do so. It’s not realistic for an athletic department to pore over the transcripts and the individual grade reports of each individual high school class of each individual high school athlete they’re attempting to recruit.¬† This would gum up and paralyze athletic departments around the country.

The problem for Kentucky, now, is even if the NCAA agrees with that statement, they do not consider it when handing out punishments. The NCAA uses a principle of “strict liability” when determining a school’s guilt or (almost never) innocence in using a player who is later found to have been ineligible. In other words, the NCAA feels that, even if a school does everything it possibly can do in checking on a player’s eligibility, then plays that player based on all the reasonably available information verifying that he’s eligible, if information comes out later that proves that the player should have been ineligible, the school will probably be punished for it — even if there’s absolutely no way the school could have known about the damning information. CBSSports.com’s Gary Parrish wrote a blistering (and darn good and persuasive) article last August about the NCAA’s strict liabiity doctrine, and how it can lead to a selective and contradictory enforcement of their own rules. Parrish reveals how the strict liability theory is, in fact, not really based in reason.

If the NCAA gets involved, UK could get Calvin Johnsoned on this one.

The fact that the NCAA could use the strict liability philosophy to punish Kentucky by vacating its achievements from last season for the reason of this grade discrepancy¬† — assuming no further information comes out in the investigation by the independent attorneys — reminds us of the Calvin Johnson catch-that-wasn’t-a-catch from the Detroit Lions’ game against the Bears on Sunday, because it will represent the enforcement of a poorly-written rule that’s only applied in certain situations. The officials in the Lions-Bears game, in applying the rule, said to Johnson, “That looked like a catch. To our eyes, you did everything you could to say you caught that ball. Everyone here thinks you should be credited with a catch. But we have a rule we have to apply, and even though the rule is a bad one, we’re still going to enforce it.” The NFL will probably change their rule, since Johnson’s play exposed it as ridiculous. We do not predict such a move from the NCAA, though. The strict liability doctrine represents the source of a great deal of power for the NCAA, and the chance to wield it and put a trophy head like Kentucky basketball on their wall might be too sweet an opportunity to pass up, even if it means they’d be contradicting ways in which they’ve applied the doctrine in the past.

We’ll have to wait and see if the independent attorneys’ research unearths enough intriguing information to get the NCAA in on this, and, as we say, we shouldn’t be waiting much longer for that. But if they do get involved and decide to vacate the Wildcats’ 2009-10 campaign (we don’t know why there’d be much in the way of penalties for future seasons), not only would those UK2K shirts from last year celebrating the program’s 2,000th win suddenly become worthless — UK would slide back to 1,988 wins — but even the most ardent of Calipari supporters and Kentucky fans would have to re-examine how they view their coach, and what they expect of him. John Calipari has two letters from the NCAA saying that nothing’s been specifically pinned on him in either of the issues involving Marcus Camby at Massachusetts or Derrick Rose at Memphis. But the fact would remain that, if it happens, this would be the third program over which Calipari had presided that took a punch from the NCAA, even though Calipari himself wouldn’t necessarily be dinged.

Calipari is simply trying to bring in the best players available, but would he change his methods to include only academically sound recruits? That wouldn't be an easy change.

It’s any coach’s job to try and get the best players possible into his program, especially at a high-profile job like Kentucky. Calipari’s just trying to win at a place where winning at basketball is of the utmost importance. But Calipari is a “high-risk, high-reward” recruiter, meaning he doesn’t mind going after academically questionable kids on occasion who happen to have grade-A basketball talent. Despite what many people think, this does not make Calipari a cheater. But, the fact that it’s happened to him before and that he’s the head coach at a polarizing program like Kentucky means that people — from fans of rival teams to inquisitive journalists — are always going to be lurking and gumshoeing around his program, especially when it comes to the high school grades and test scores of the players he recruits. If the NCAA vacates Calipari’s one and only season (so far) in Lexington, the Big Blue Nation — including the University of Kentucky’s new president, since the one who helped hire Calipari, Lee T. Todd, is leaving — will have to ask itself what future hoops achievements might be eventually vacated if Calipari is still the man in charge — and, despite their obvious love for the guy, if it’s all worth the risk. That’s not an easy question.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s wait for the release of the official report from the independent investigation, and see if there’s any reason for the NCAA to get further involved. If they do, with their inconsistent history of applying the “strict liability” philosophy, it’s going to be a tense few weeks in Lexington as the new season approaches.

jstevrtc (547 Posts)


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3 Responses to “Bledsoe, Kentucky, And The NCAA’s “Strict Liability””

  1. Ryan says:

    While I think the NCAA needs to make efforts to be consistent in its rulings and enforcement, it is also necessary to put most of the onus on individual programs by holding them responsible for reasonably foreseeable mistakes. If coaches want to go after any highly rated recruit irrespective of transcript, then they should bear the consequences if any “foreseeable” ineligibility issues arise in the future. In other words, if the student athlete has a suspicious jump in SAT scores, takes their ACT/SAT at a suspicious site, if grades suspiciously improve, or if there are frequent transfers between high schools, then the recruiting college needs to conduct its own due diligence or bear the consequences of future disclosures affecting eligibility regardless of whether the NCAA clears said player. If they want to be 100% safe, then they should not recruit the athlete. But its disingenuous and invites corruption for coaches to hide behind the idea that “the NCAA cleared them, so its not my fault.” If a student took a few bucks from an AAU coach, then that should not be the fault of the coach or the recruiting program and the penalty should accrue to the player only. But if a student is driving a flashy sports car around campus, then the coach should reasonably be assumed to have purposefully ignored a likely violation and should suffer the consequences. Common sense should be the standard.

    All I am suggesting is that its correct to punish coaches and programs if they ignore obvious red flags. Hiding behind a player being “cleared” is unacceptable and is behind much of the corruption in college basketball. If the coaches/schools do not want to conduct the required due diligence or be held responsible for questionable players, then they should not recruit the player in question. End of story.

  2. jstevrtc says:

    Ryan — appreciate the comment. Well stated. There are a couple of things I agree with, a couple on which I think we differ, and I’d certainly like to hear your opinions on any or all of them.

    I agree with you that coaches need to tread cautiously when it comes to academically risky kids, and especially coaches who have had something like this sting them (or a school where they coached) before. I also agree that the “he was cleared by the NCAA Clearinghouse” defense is worthless, because that’s not really what “clearance” from the NCAA Clearinghouse means. Just because a kid is cleared by them doesn’t mean he’s totally legit and his eligibility can never be questioned. That’s a surprisingly common error.

    Let me address, though, your thoughts on the matter of “due diligence.” In your second sentence, you mention that coaches who recruit kids irrespective of transcript should bear the consequences if any foreseeable ineligibility issues arise in the future. I’d say most people would agree with that statement.

    The question I mean to raise in the article though, is… how far is a school supposed to go? Where does due diligence end? What is considered “foreseeable?” If a school is recruiting a player, and the official school transcript for that player lists courses and grades that meet all initial eligibility requirements, what else are they supposed to do? Should they play it safe and interview certain kids’ teachers and ask for grade reports from every single class and compare them to the transcript to make sure there’s no funny business? Are they supposed to go interview kids who were in the room with the prospective athlete when they took the SAT/ACT? In my mind, there has to be a standard. There has to be a point where the NCAA says, “You did enough. There was no way you could have known. The only way you could have known was if you had done far more than was reasonably required.”

    The NCAA’s use of the strict liability philosophy means they get to get away with having no such standard. In my view, this comes out of a feeling that SOMEONE has to be punished, even if it’s not a guilty party. In your comment, you say that the penalty should accrue to the player only. I totally agree. In the Bledsoe/Kentucky case, though — and in so many cases similar to this — the deceived parties can’t go after the presumptive deceivers. Kentucky’s not going to sue Eric Bledsoe or his high school (good luck getting players if your program has a history of suing former players and their high schools). The NCAA can’t go after Bledsoe, since he’s out of their grasp. They’re not going after Bledsoe’s high school (I don’t think they can), even though that’s where the alleged deceit took place. The only people left for the NCAA to punish is the college, and in just about every case, they do — just because it simply feels right that someone should be punished.

    Now, it’s true, when he was in high school, there were question marks about how Bledsoe was ever going to be eligible to play college hoops. Again, though, how far is a school supposed to go? There’s only so much a school can be expected to do in terms of vetting. Did Kentucky do a realistic job of checking into this? I don’t have that information. Maybe so, maybe not. But to me, examining every single grade report from every single teacher is too much to expect of any school, whether it’s Kentucky, Memphis, Duke, Stanford, whoever. With Strict Liability, the NCAA is saying that they don’t have to tell you where that standard is, because it doesn’t necessarily exist…but they’ll punish you if you don’t live up to it. The NCAA needs to learn to admit that…hey, sometimes deceptive people (like whoever may have changed Bledsoe’s transcript grades, as alleged in this case) are actually successful in their deception. Finally, in my experience, when there aren’t rules or guidelines for important things like this, that’s when favorites get played, biases are invited, etc.

    As you can tell by the long response, I consider this an interesting topic and one that I hope invites more discussion. Thanks for your comment, and I hope to hear from you again on this or any other subject.

    John S. from RTC

  3. While I think the NCAA needs to make efforts to be consistent in its rulings and enforcement, it is also necessary to put most of the onus on individual programs by holding them responsible for reasonably foreseeable mistakes. If coaches want to go after any highly rated recruit irrespective of transcript, then they should bear the consequences if any “foreseeable” ineligibility issues arise in the future. In other words, if the student athlete has a suspicious jump in SAT scores, takes their ACT/SAT at a suspicious site, if grades suspiciously improve, or if there are frequent transfers between high schools, then the recruiting college needs to conduct its own due diligence or bear the consequences of future disclosures affecting eligibility regardless of whether the NCAA clears said player. If they want to be 100% safe, then they should not recruit the athlete. But its disingenuous and invites corruption for coaches to hide behind the idea that “the NCAA cleared them, so its not my fault.” If a student took a few bucks from an AAU coach, then that should not be the fault of the coach or the recruiting program and the penalty should accrue to the player only. But if a student is driving a flashy sports car around campus, then the coach should reasonably be assumed to have purposefully ignored a likely violation and should suffer the consequences. Common sense should be the standard.

    All I am suggesting is that its correct to punish coaches and programs if they ignore obvious red flags. Hiding behind a player being “cleared” is unacceptable and is behind much of the corruption in college basketball. If the coaches/schools do not want to conduct the required due diligence or be held responsible for questionable players, then they should not recruit the player in question. End of story.

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