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August 26, 2009, 11:59 AM ET
Bilas Channels His Inner Kropotkin

by John Gasaway

Jay Bilas has written far and away the most original and thorough piece yet on last week’s Memphis ruling, one in which he proposes that the NCAA get out of the enforcement and eligibility business entirely and instead restrict itself to simply administering championships. (Sorry, Outsiders: Bilas’s piece is behind the Insider paid wall at ESPN.com.) In fact, I threw myself on this column the way only a topically fatigued reader can: with genuine initial curiosity followed by swelling delight at finding someone–anyone–putting some actual thought into this matter instead of merely shouting “Evil!” and shaking a pitchfork in the general direction of the NCAA.

Which is more than a little ironic because, truth be told, the cumulative thrust of his argument is that the NCAA really is evil. Oh, Bilas uses all the right qualifiers, of course. “Reasonable minds can disagree,” blah, blah, blah. But his five-part argument posits that the NCAA did the wrong thing in, what do you know, all five instances. What’s more he offers (I’m getting faint, it’s so wondrous) actual reasons to back up his statements.

(Last Thursday morning I created a new alert in my RSS aggregator for “John Calipari,” and I have read every single resulting ping. Whatever your view of Calipari, it’s been a dispiriting ordeal for this reader to slog through all the splenetic and inane screeching that has erupted. And I thought the Internet was going to solve this problem! Where is the gleaming new era of enlightened discourse I was promised? The college hoops punditry has not covered itself with ratiocinative glory the past five days.)

So, yes, Bilas has produced without a doubt the best piece done on the subject to date. But I think in this instance he’s mistaken.

Banish all rules….What’s not to like? 
Before I tussle with Bilas, let me flag two areas of consensus which are just as substantial as any points where we may agree to disagree. First, Jay is plainly fatigued by the way transgressions in the college hoops world are discussed with the same curious admixture of aggrieved vehemence and lawyerly solemnity as actual criminal behaviors in, how do I put this, the real world. Amen, brother! I am no apologist for (allegedly) cheating on one’s SAT. But there’s a long line of bad things I am no apologist for and one must husband one’s outrage accordingly. If I spend too much of it on “(allegedly) cheating on one’s SAT,” I’ll have nothing left for war, famine, acts of terror, or even Brett Favre.

Second, Bilas advances the following somewhat heterodox notion: “Call me old-fashioned, but when I imply that a coach was masterminding academic fraud…I require credible proof. There is none.” Behold the odd trio: Bilas, Dick Vitale, and yours truly. On this point we are in total agreement. I’m certainly not too squeamish to engage in some rollicking good what-did-he-really-know speculation regarding Calipari. But when defining what the NCAA should have done, I’ve been quite simply dumbfounded by how many writers have brayed for a pound of coach flesh without bothering to find an actual evidentiary basis for extracting said flesh. Kudos, Jay.  

He lost me, though, with point one in his five-count indictment: the “NCAA’s initial eligibility standards are a joke.” Bilas suggests that member institutions be allowed to admit whomever they want for basketball, just like they admit whomever they want for their non-athletic-scholarship freshman populations. It’s “nonsensical” to require a certain combination of high school GPA and test score. ”If a player can be admitted to an institution with a 400 on his SAT, does it really matter whether the kid gets a 550 or a 700?”   

I realize full well that Jay Bilas has likely done more discursive penance for his alma mater than any other human alive. So I hesitate to play the Duke card here, I really do. But surely if Bilas had received his undergraduate degree, as I did, from one of those vast impersonal Big Ten schools, he would be familiar with the GPA vs. test score matrix. Years before I applied to any college I knew that my application to the nearest vast impersonal Big Ten school would be screened with said matrix. (Not to mention this admittedly crude and reductive matrix was originally a meritocratic reform that superseded more insular and clubby admissions criteria.) Let’s say my application had been rejected. If I appealed the decision by pointing out that other applicants had been granted admission with lower test scores (but higher GPAs) or lower GPAs (but higher test scores), I would have been met with a shrug and a pamphlet on any number of fine institutional alternatives with “Eastern” or “Southern” or such in their titles. That’s life in academe. I can’t share Bilas’s outrage here.

The NCAA’s intrinsic NCAA-ness is portable; it will adhere to any entity assigned the same thankless tasks. 
Nor do I envision the same milk and honey that he anticipates will flow at last when the NCAA gets out of the enforcement business. Bilas proposes that investigations and penalty determinations be turned over to independent third parties. But won’t independent third parties face the same obstacles tomorrow that the NCAA faces today? In a passage that frankly baffles me, Bilas asks that we “please save the tired excuse that the NCAA doesn’t have subpoena power. Every member institution has to bow and scrape before the NCAA.” Yes, every member institution has to bow and scrape. But individuals, famously, do not, to the dispositive detriment of more than one investigation. The fact that the investigator across the table is suddenly wearing a really big hat that says “Independent Third Party!” isn’t going to change that one bit.

I’m a sucker for “toujours l’audace,” and Bilas’s proposal is nothing if not audacious. (And by that I mean there’s no bloody way it will happen. We might as well ask the post office to get out of the business of junk mail.) But the incorrigible necessities of 340 member institutions playing the same sport mandate that all those teams will have to arrive at prior agreement on some procedural covenants, otherwise known as rules. The group that sets and monitors those rules will never be loved.

Bilas sees what we all see: a student-athlete conceptual hybrid that at the most elite levels of college basketball is contested, unsteady, and even combustible. At the risk of oversimplification his solution might be said to be to remove the “student” element of that compound entirely. I cannot co-sign there. The exertion of bothersome academic effort to satisfy what in the abstract can be seen as arbitrary standards is doubtless inconvenient for more than one highly-sought high school recruit. That kind of exertion, however, is pretty much the quotidian alpha and omega of life off the court.             

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