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.
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:
- What is a “grade report?”
- How and when could there be a discrepancy?
- 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.
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.
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.