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Kentucky Basketball: Grasping Reality With Both Hands

The last few days have been interesting around the Big Blue Nation.  The New York Times has accused Eric Bledsoe, or at least his mother and coach, of engaging in academic fraud and providing impermissible benefits.  Various writers around the land, including those who normally eschew commentary on college basketball issues have weighed in, almost universally attacking Calipari as a cheater by both implication and direct accusation.

In other words, not much is new.

This morning I want to discuss four recent articles about Coach Cal,one by Andrew Sharp of the SB Nation mothership, one by Mike DeCourcy of The Sporting News, one by Eamonn Brennan of ESPN and finally, one by Matt Jones from Kentucky Sports Radio.

Let's begin with this piece by my colleague at the SB Nation mothership, Andrew Sharp.  If you have not read Andrew's article, you really must, but first let me point out that Andrew is not a Kentucky fan, he is a fan of another team with a powder-blue color scheme who's nickname begins with a "T" and ends with a "Heels."  But unlike myself, Andrew is really good at removing his partisanship from his writing, and takes a very objective view of the situation from a rather unusual angle -- he remarks on the actual journalism behind the New York Times story itself, rather than just the subject matter.

You need to read Sharp's whole article, because it makes several very important and valuable points.  But I want to focus, for the nonce, on just one of them.

Take it away, Andrew:

Listen: Kentucky basketball may have bent the rules this year, and lord knows, it wouldn't be the first time for that program. But centering the investigation on the family of Bledsoe—a kid that, by all accounts, worked his ass off and is about to earn a much better life for himself and his family—just misses the point. Even if the vague allegations are 100% true... Who really cares? Where's the victim?

So a D-student became a B-student his senior year, allowing him to go to college? Doesn't that happen to non-athletes all the time? And can we really blame teachers for affording him the benefit of the doubt? Bledsoe used his time in college to catapult him to the pinnacle of his chosen profession, so it's not as if the teachers' faith has been betrayed. And for God's sake, let's not pretend that Bledsoe is the first athlete to get serious about academics during his senior year in order to qualify for college sports.

Scolding corrupt coaches is one thing, but in skewering Bledsoe's name with a bunch of second-hand allegations and no proof, we risk sabotaging one of the system's better success stories.

This dovetails nicely with my earlier commentary on the subject, but when combined with Matt Jones' piece we'll get to in a minute, it creates a disturbing impression of the entire act of reporting on the Bledsoe matter.  Not only were the transcripts that provided support for this story illegally obtained, what they reveal isn't really news -- except when your head coach is named John Calipari.  Then it becomes big news.

Andrew is not saying this, but I will.  The Times has used an "ends justify the means" argument for this particular case -- getting the good dope on Coach Cal trumps the means necessary to do so.  If it requires running Eric Bledsoe, his family and his high school coach into the meat grinder, so much the better, and privacy laws are only an obstacle for the little people, not the Grey Lady.  After all, they're absent malice, right?

This reminds me of another great quote from the movie, "Absence of Malice" by Wilford Brimley as James A. Wells, Assistant U.S. Attorney General: "You had a leak? You call what's goin' on around here a leak? Boy, the last time there was a leak like this, Noah built hisself a boat."


The second article of interest is this one by the Sporting News' Mike DeCourcy, one of my all-time favorite sportswriters.  DeCourcy notes how the media have reveled in using the Times' story to bash John Calipari:

In a week where Kansas revealed details of a reported million-dollar fraud inside its athletic ticket office and Connecticut confirmed an NCAA notice of allegations that charged Hall of Famer Jim Calhoun with failing to promote an atmosphere of compliance, what college basketball development generated the greatest reaction from the media? A New York Times report that stated the NCAA was looking into how Eric Bledsoe advanced from a 1.9 GPA to a 2.5 to become academically eligible to play for Kentucky last season.

This paragraph right here says it all.  Millions of dollars in fraud, a hall of fame coach hit with NCAA sanctions, and what do the media want to talk about?  Allegations of possible academic improprieties and eligibility problems of the most garden-variety sort that may or may not have happened to a Kentucky player, and we all know that adds up to Calipari  being evil again:

When it comes to Calipari, fairness and restraint generally are trumped in the media by a perceived license to drill him at any opportunity. Two Final Four teams he coached had their appearances vacated, and so it seems there's no need to know more about any particular circumstance.

I have nothing to add to that -- it says it all about as well as you can.


Eammon Brennan then counters DeCourcy with an article that argues that the media doesn't hate Calipari, Calipari stories just get page views and sell papers.  To wit:

No, the reason Calipari draws more heated reaction and intense speculation than anywhere else is because this has happened before. Calipari has been at two schools before Kentucky, both of which saw the end of Calipari's tenure coincide with NCAA violations and vacated seasons. When UK hired Calipari, the calculus was clear: He could be a major success, but it's also a risk.


It's because Calipari is a story. A good one. Win or lose, NCAA infractions or clean bill of health, well, everybody loves a good story. Don't you?

Now, I like Eammonn Brennan, but I admit that this article bugged me a bit.  Essentially, it gives the media a pass for getting it wrong under the rubric of "All's fair in media as long as it's something people want to read about."  Brennan argues that Calipari is a newsmaker, and you can't blame the media for playing whack-a-mole on him because people want to read articles that take shots at him.

Brennan may be right, but I am reminded of the movie, "Wall Street," you know the one where Michael Douglas plays corporate raider Gordon Gecko and coins one of the most famous phrases of the 1980's: "The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good."

That's what Eammonn is defending here, although he may not know it -- Greed is good.  Calipari has been entangled with a couple of NCAA issues, both of which had the same outcome in a generic sense -- vacating a Final Four.  That top-end outcome has become a battle cry, even though the circumstances surrounding  the two situations could not possibly have been much different -- one was a late-season involvement with unscrupulous people with Marcus Camby that got most of UMass' 1995-96 post-season vacated.  One was a then-signee at Memphis, Derrick Rose, who apparently had a stand-in take his SAT and wound up costing the Tigers almost every game of the 2007-08 season.

Greed is good.  It's okay to beat on Calipari as long as it garners page views.  He had two Final Fours vacated, and wouldn't it just be cool if it all happened again?  Then we could write I-told-you-so's for days and days, getting more page views.  The real news, the news that matters, will just have to wait till we get our page views and sell our papers.


Speaking of real news, this brings me to the fourth item for your viewing pleasure.  Matt Jones at Kentucky Sports Radio has decided he wants Jerry Tipton's job as an investigative reporter for UK basketball, and so far, seems to be doing a better job on the Bledsoe story.  Matt has dug and dug, and discovered that it is likely to be an assistant basketball coach who leaked Bledsoe's transcript (illegally) to the New York Times:

Now this is where it starts to get interesting. A source within the media tells me that a College Assistant Coach leaked Bledsoe’s transcripts to multiple media outlets, including his own. This follows the assumption of many in the Bledsoe camp who have assumed since the story broke that the person who leaked the transcripts was an Assistant coach in college basketball. My source would not tell me the name of the Assistant Coach and was also not certain that the coach was the same individual who leaked to Pete Thamel and the New York Times, but he confirmed that a College Assistant is the source of Bledsoe’s leaked transcripts to other media outlets.

I am not saying that Calipari's connection to the alleged NCAA violations in Eric Bledsoe's past is not news, it is.  But this is big news.  Matt is saying that a media source who received the leak of Bledsoe's transcripts is pointing the finger at an assistant college basketball coach, although he won't divulge the name of the coach.  That leak appears to be a violation of law, although I reserve the right to be wrong about that.

Coaches try to rat out their rivals all the time, so it's not really surprising.  Bruce Pearl famously tried to stick it to Illinois, and I'm sure our brothers and sisters over at Roll 'Bama Roll have not forgotten the role of Phillip Fulmer, former coach of the Tennessee Volunteers, in some of their unhappier moments with the NCAA Committee on Infractions

But it would seem to be more than just routine when we start talking about the violation of privacy laws and torts.  It is very possible that if his name is revealed, this assistant coach, at minimum, will be the subject of a lawsuit from Bledsoe or those connected with him, and could be the subject of disciplinary action by both the NCAA and his school.

Wouldn't it be incredibly droll if it was the leaker who wound up getting charged with unethical conduct by the NCAA, and Calipari exonerated once again?  The thought of that is truly delicious, and the sound of heads exploding around the USA would be like sweet music to the ears of most of the Faithful.

Now, why is my mouth watering ...?