Kentucky Basketball: Answering Some Understandable Questions About Eric Bledsoe

First off, let me get this out of the way -- I am not an unbiased observer, or a disinterested third party.  I am a Kentucky partisan, and proud to be one.  Unlike newspaper reporters who register independent but have a 100% partisan voting record one way or the other, I am not about to attempt to deceive anyone that I have no interests at stake here.

With all that said, my colleague Eammonn Brennan at ESPN has a very wry take on the whole Bledsoe scenario, and assuming that he is agnostic, at least as far as Kentucky basketball is concerned, I can totally understand and appreciate that.

Eammonn raises some excellent questions.  Let's examine the most notable:

In other words, a school board used taxpayer money to hire a reputable independent firm, led by former President of the Alabama State Bar Mark White and retired Federal Court judge and Civil Rights pioneer U.W. Clemon, to investigate a former student's transcript. Then, once that firm presented its report -- which, despite the almost-impossible-to-provide evidence of actual wrongdoing, is pretty clear in its judgment, ethics-wise -- the Board decided to basically ignore it. So why spend the money? Why waste the time? Why hire the firm if its investigation only mattered so much?

These are excellent questions, to which I think I have the answers.  They are speculative, but then again, I suspect that's about the best we can do under the circumstances.

The answers are found in this article by creature, to which I keep referring because so many, if not the ultimate, of his arguments were proven right by the decision:

Teachers jigger grades. You jigger a grade because the student is going to college. You do it because he might get an award or scholarship. You do it because he's a nice person. Many more grades are jiggered up than down, I know that. And if there's going to be a market in getting paid by agents to jigger grades, teachers will do that too, because while students care a lot about grades, most teachers care about knowledge and hate the grades that so often falsify the whole process.

This is, as Frank Zappa would say, the "crux of the biscuit."  Educators are a touchy-feely lot, by and large.  They actually care about some of their students, particularly ones who work hard to achieve something but who's dreams are threatened by earlier misjudgments or marginal academic skills.

Bledsoe's college career was threatened, probably by both.  His teachers knew that if his GPA was not to a certain level, he would not qualify for college.  His family could not afford to send him to junior college, or anywhere else.  His mother was as poor as could be.

So the teachers helped a talented kid get out of bad circumstances by "jigger[ing]" his grades.  Is that unethical?  In a strict sense, it is, absolutely.  As much as we would like to go all warm and fuzzy and say, "But look at how well it turned out!", it was an abdication, in a strict sense, of the teacher's responsibility.  It was moral relativism at it's finest.

Now, I say that without knowing the actual facts.  The teacher claimed that Bledsoe put in the necessary work to earn that grade.  The investigators were unable to substantiate that claim.  That, in itself, neither renders the claim false, nor the the investigators wrong.  It simply is a "he said, she said."

Turning now to the question of why the Alabama school board did not take the word of the investigators that spent $10,000 and 3 months to reach this conclusion, creature again has the answer:

But they are getting ready to run into a brick wall. The school system is in a position to say: everything was done right BECAUSE WE SAY SO AND THAT'S THAT. The Birmingham school system budgeted $10,000 for the report. I know for a fact that that sum of money is far from negligible in that system. If they paid that much, it was in order to put the cap on this whole business for good. If they were going to send out a teacher to confess to a crime, they would have saved their money.

This is an important observation that, even though it failed in the context of his larger argument, stands as absolutely insightful in the final analysis -- Alabama was never going to throw Bledsoe under the bus.  The $10,000 was spent to prevent that very thing from happening by third parties, namely Pete Thamel and the Times.

Do you suppose it is a coincidence that the investigation was unable to turn up much of the documentation it was looking for?  I am not so naive.  Rather than having Thamel firing FOIA requests and sniffing around for blood that he may have found and that the school system would have had to defend in the media, they hired an Alabama law firm to find what they could and issue a report which they justifiably ignored for lack of evidence.  That probably saved them $25,000 in public relations consulting and held the papers off until any actual evidence of wrongdoing, if it ever existed, was "lost."

Alabama was never going to allow a bunch of northerners to come down and trash one of their most helpless.  Ever.  Trust me.

Guilty or innocent, regardless of what the lawyers said, Alabama was always going to stand by their student, absent some nefarious third-party involvement.  I'm sure they'd tell you I'm wrong, but I don't think I am.  The Brimingham Board of Education had determined this outcome the day it commissioned the law firm as a show of its willingness to take the charge seriously.

Many will point to the fact that the independent counsel did not believe the teacher's claims as proof of wrongdoing, but wrongdoing by whom, and for what purpose?  A teacher who wanted to help a poor kid get as shot at the big time?  Good luck selling that as a bad thing, even though the teacher clearly violated any number of ethics maxims if my opinion is actually right.  Many will call that moral relativism, and they will be right.  But many will secretly applaud it nonetheless.

Finally, Eammonn has this:

Either way, this is essentially what we're talking about:

    * A high school player that may or may not have had his now-redacted grades changed to meet an arbitrary (and, depending on who you ask, unnecessary) eligibility requirement handed down by a large non-profit organization.

    * A report that says those grades were changed, and the ones who changed them couldn't come up with good reasons why.

    * A school board that said, "Great, but we're taking the teacher's word anyway."

    * And a group of fans apparently ecstatic about this ruling. Why? Because this way, the aforementioned non-profit can't issue a decree saying games that obviously took place -- I saw them; we were there -- never actually took place at all. Reality remains intact. Much rejoicing ensues.

Folks,  that is sweet stuff, and exactly what we have.  At the end of the day, I am largely untroubled by it, primarily because I know it happens hundreds of times a year in thousands of school systems, and nobody says boo. Not only that, but we get the bonus that nobody can persuasively argue that this outcome was bad in any way with respect to what happened after Bledsoe's graduation from high school.

For the teacher, mission accomplished.  For Kentucky, another bullet dodged.  For college basketball, business as usual.  For Eric Bledsoe, the world when he could have been trapped in poverty.  For Pete Thamel, well-deserved frustration.  For the Birmingham school system, an extended central digit directed north.

Much rejoicing ensues.  All in all, it could have been worse.

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