Back on the clock …

Back after a week of vacation. You turn your head for a minute and look what happens . . .

The New York Times report on Eric Bledsoe makes a big splash, but just as enlightening a report came on its heels — just a couple of hours after, in fact — in a story The Birmingham News reported.

While the Times reported that NCAA enforcement officials had met with three different people in Birmingham regarding Bledsoe’s high school academic record and various aspects of his amateurism (the paper also broke an allegation that a high school coach may have paid at least $1,200 in rent for Bledsoe and his mother) the News went into more detail on when the NCAA interviews took place and what the line of questioning was.

The News reported that the NCAA was in Birmingham in late February. It’s important to note because if the NCAA had found anything that raised a serious red flag at that time, UK compliance officials, you’d think, would have needed to be notified at that time. Public records requests to UK and subsequent statements by the school have said that UK was not notified of a potential problem. And still hasn’t been.

Nor, and this is important, did the NCAA come back from Birmingham to interview Bledsoe himself while it could still compel him to sit down with its enforcement officials, while he was still a college student and the season was ongoing. That the NCAA did not interview Bledsoe (as far as we know, and if it did UK should have disclosed that when asked for comment on this) is telling, in my opinion. But let me say this for the first of several times — no one’s opinion on NCAA actions means anything. The NCAA does what it does, and it can be difficult to predict.

So none of the preceding means UK is out of the woods. Memphis didn’t get an official letter of inquiry from the NCAA until Jan. 16, 2009, about nine months after playing in the national championship game in April of 2008, for events that took place in the spring and summer of 2007 regarding Derrick Rose’s SAT.

Still, in my experience, if the NCAA feels it has reason to investigate, it can step in immediately and advise the school that something is amiss. How do I know this? I’ve covered it.

The NCAA did some February investigating of University of Louisville senior Marvin Stone in 2003, approached him at U of L with questions on Feb. 14 of that year and soon after its enforcement committee sent U of L an advisory stating that it believed Stone to have committed NCAA violations by accepting impermissible benefits during his high school years. The saga dragged all the way through the first round of the Conference USA Tournament, with U of L voluntarily benching Stone until he was cleared of the charges before him. Even after he was cleared, the NCAA still advised U of L that it believed Stone was guilty of violations, but when it would not present evidence U of L decided to play him anyway.

You have to ask yourself, if the NCAA felt that there was something amiss that could jeopardize future UK victories, was it not under some obligation to let UK know it was investigating such charges? It certainly let U of L know in 2003. The answer, of course, is no. The NCAA is under no obligation to do anything. Yet the absence of notice given to UK would seem, to me, to be a big question in all this. Unless there was some notice given that we don’t know about yet. And again, just jumping back into this, there’s a great deal we don’t know.

UK was quick to respond to the academic charges surrounding Bledsoe’s dramatic senior year improvement in high school, and would appear to have solid “cover,” for what that’s worth. The NCAA, according to UK, gave extra scrutiny to Bledsoe’s academic records, a process which would entail extra communication with UK over questions. Remember, all of the transcripts in question are in possession of UK and the NCAA, and have been from the beginning. The junior year transcript that the Times obtained and whose grades the Times had analyzed would have thrown up the same red flags — and apparently did — for both UK compliance and the NCAA Eligibility Center.

If UK did its diligence with the NCAA and took part in a collaborative process every step of the way involving the very academic questions the NCAA was looking into in February, you’d think it would be tough for the NCAA to come back and find the school liable.

But again, and I can’t stress this enough, the NCAA can do anything.

The financial allegations, however, could open a new line of questioning for the NCAA, if it hasn’t been pursuing such items already. (The Birmingham News story seemed to indicate that most of the NCAA’s questions in Birmingham surrounded academic issues.) Again, the record of players receiving impermissible benefits both during and after college and the various penalties is well-documented. It’s still too early to say how such a scenario would play out for Bledsoe and UK.

I will note this. While most people, myself included, thought it unlikely that the NCAA would force Memphis to vacate wins for an invalid SAT score it did not know about, ESPN.com’s Dana O’Neil ran a story early on noting that the combination of the SAT score and impermissible benefits to Rose’s brother could be the key on which the case hinged. And it was.

She again has written a piece for ESPN.com on the Bledsoe situation, quoting a “source with knowledge of NCAA rules.” That source says UK could be in jeopardy of vacating victories, based on a recent rule change that could classify Bledsoe’s coach paying his family’s rent (if he did) as an “extra benefit.” She goes on to report the four prongs on which the NCAA would base such a finding. It’s a report I would give considerable weight in all that has been published on this.

In short, there’s a lot on this we don’t know. As I said when the Memphis allegations broke, if you’re looking for some kind of smoking gun on UK coach John Calipari, this isn’t it. However, it’s clear by who is tracking this story that the scrutiny level is as high as it has ever been, and will remain so. Sometimes these kinds of stories can dislodge facts or create momentum that lead to others breaking. If you’re a UK fan, you can only hope the school’s athletic administration has been at the top of its game.

In a blog piece below this one, I’m going to re-post some stories from the Stone saga, because it’s one of the few cases I’ve ever been involved in where you get a really good view of how these NCAA negotiations work, keeping in mind that they are always changing as policies change.

— Read a collection of stories on the Stone saga here.

— Read a blog entry from last Aug. 23 in which I review the question over whether a school not knowing about miseeds is an acceptable excuse with the NCAA here.

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