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Kentucky Basketball: The Tie That Binds

John Clay has a column today that says it all with the lede:  "Again, how many times can John Calipari say he didn't know?"

Fair question.

Fair answer -- as many times as it is true.

I want to make clear that I am absolutely, positively not attacking John Clay or his piece.  John is a wonderful writer whom I admire and greatly respect, and no less for this piece than many of his others.

Clay's article is, quite frankly, reflective of the perception of many college basketball fans, in and out of Kentucky.  He is making an honest effort to address a question that needs to be asked.

But I want to examine one particular comment Clay makes:

On May 27, 2009, the Memphis Commercial Appeal broke the story that the NCAA alleged that an "unknown individual" completed the SAT for former Memphis guard Derrick Rose.

On May 29, 2010, the New York Times broke the story that the NCAA is investigating possible academic eligibility and extra benefit issues with regards to former Kentucky guard Eric Bledsoe.

There's one common denominator to both of those stories, and he's coaching Kentucky.

That looks right, doesn't it?  What if I told you it wasn't?

More after the jump.

There are actually three stories involved here.  The story of Marcus Camby at UMass.  The story of Derrick Rose at Memphis.  The story of Eric Bledsoe at Kentucky.

All three have a common denominator that jumps right out at everyone -- John Calipari.  That makes the conclusion easy, facile, effortless.  But as Yoda said to Obi Wan in The Empire Strikes Back, " ... there is another."

The "other" is that all three of these players were poor, at-risk, fatherless young black men who happen to be very good at basketball.  Camby was from the Hartford housing projects, and had no father living with his mother.  Derrick Rose was similarly from a disadvantaged situation on the wrong side of Chicago with three brothers in place of a dad.  Eric Bledsoe's mother has been alleged to have had Bledsoe's high-school coach pay for 3 months of her rent, $1,200 for a $400/month apartment, and said to have been working in custodial and other odd jobs to make ends meet.  No father anywhere. 

All three of these young men were poor, and their families needed money.  Not like you and I need money for nicer cars, or longer vacations, or better computers, but to pay for their food and rent.

I don't blame John Clay for noticing Calipari was the common thread, but that was only the surface connection.  The common thread that matters in every one of these situations were poor, minority young men who were skilled at basketball.  Their skills did not go unnoticed, and neither did their poverty or lack of a father.  The fact of their indigence made them and their families vulnerable to individuals who understood that if these young men got noticed playing basketball, got a chance, got an opportunity to show what they could do, they could make millions.  And if these hangers-on could facilitate that notice, they could call that debt due, and get a piece for themselves.

Make no mistake, John Calipari is involved in each of these stories of either alleged or admitted unethical conduct.  He was the guy that gave them the chance, and at least as much for his benefit as theirs.  Two, and now possibly three times, the opportunity that Calipari gave them, both to his benefit and theirs, mind you, has collapsed around his ears.  The question is, if Calipari is to blame, what is he to blame for?

There are no facts to support an allegation of unethical conduct against John Calipari, or any assistant coach under his control in any of these cases.  In each case, it has clearly been the player or somebody associated with him or his family who has engaged in wrongdoing.  In each case, Calipari apparently legally and ethically recruited these young men, had nothing to do, nor knowledge of, the transgressions surrounding them, and yet each time gets millions of fingers pointed at him as a scofflaw, a serial violator of the rules.  The facts are, there is not one single case where Calipari can be connected to major rule-breaking of any kind.

Before you accuse me of being out to canonize John Calipari, I am not.  I am pointing out that the truly relevant connection shared by these young men was their circumstances, which made them universally vulnerable to the unscrupulous.  If Calipari turns out to be among them, then I will deal with him as well, but so far, there isn't even the slightest hint that he was.  I think that's important, even if others do not.

"But," you may say, "I don't believe in coincidences."  Fair enough.  But let me ask you this -- how many well-to-do young men have wound up in NCAA trouble over the years?  When was the last time you heard of a child with wealthy or even middle-class parents accepting $1,200 in rent money, or gold chains?  It has happened a few times to be sure, but you know and I know that they are few and far between.  Meanwhile, the violations of poor kids pile up like the bodies of Orcs at the walls of Helm's Deep.  Coincidence?  I think not.

If you think the NCAA difficulties of players under Calipari's tutelage are a trend, you are right.  At-risk kids have been getting colleges in NCAA trouble from time immemorial, and that trend is so well-documented it needs no further exposition.  That is the real, undeniable trend here.  Calipari's success at recruiting great players without regard to their family circumstances puts him at great risk of just this kind of scenario.

I do not and will not suggest it is okay for the penniless to break the NCAA rules, or engage in behavior that prejudices their son's and daughter's chances at an education. But some would suggest the solution is to avoid "those people," the at-risk young men and women from broken families and in desperate need of money. 

That would be a solution, no doubt -- to consign them to their fate and hope some NBA team finds a way to take notice, and if not, we can tut-tut their arrest on a drug charge or their death in a gang shooting from the comfort of our nice homes.  Either way, problem solved, n'est pas?  Our beautiful colleges don't have to worry about dealing with the problems of the disadvantaged or the vulnerable.  We'll just deny them access to the system and thereby clean up our little NCAA compliance problem.

Great idea, that. Exclude those who might wind up doing something desperate and unethical in their past, not from greed, but from fear of starvation or exposure to the elements, and we can eliminate 90% of the problem.  Refuse to recruit the kids who grew up in tough neighborhoods without fathers and barely managed to make grades high enough to qualify in schools barely fitting the designation.  Question them when they do manage to overachieve for a year or two, and treat their success with suspicion.  Doubt their every word, and believe those to whom they owe money.

Call me a bleeding-heart liberal, but that's a world I really don't care to live in.

[Editor's note:  The Compliance Guy at The Bylaw Blog has written a spectacular companion to this essay, which should be required reading.  Forget that he quoted me.  Read what he says.]