Big Bluenecks, we should demand a little more.

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—from tread

If you are a Central Kentuckian, and you picked up the newspaper, turned on the local news, logged on to your facebook or Twitter account, then you know now that the New York Times and ESPN.com have been looking into the high school career of NBA-bound, former UK guard Eric Bledsoe.

Their investigative stories are based upon the fact that the NCAA has also been exploring Bledsoe’s path to college. The stories and follow-ups are available all over the web—go read them. In a nutshell, Eric Bledsoe, for his first three years in high school was a “D” student. He transferred schools, out of district, after his high school closed—to play basketball for a controversial Birmingham, Alabama high school coach. The coach claims he had one goal with Bledsoe, to get him eligible for a college basketball career by injecting some discipline and placing expectations on him. Real Hollywood-style story, right Ms. Bullock?

But the NYT story quotes a landlord who is still owed $3200 back rent who says this same coach was paying for the $400 a month apartment that Bledsoe and his mother moved into, in order for him to be in the right school district. The move out of district was investigated and cleared by state athletic authorities. The real meat of the investigation seems to stem from the jump from bad student to good student in one year at his new school. You see, major colleges had been calling back in Bledsoe’s junior year at his old school, but it didn’t take long for all the grown men in the shady world of recruiting to find out that this kid might not have the grades to play college basketball. Bledsoe’s old coach seemed to guard his transcripts as best he could if you believe what he is quoted as saying. The NYT article used terms as dire as “improbable” that Bledsoe could get his grades up enough on his own to be eligible for a D1 basketball program. It’s safe to say, that isn’t really the case, at the risk of being crass, I gotta believe a Birmingham high school “A” couldn’t be that hard to garner for a kid whose future was on the line. The NYT article floats back and forth between salacious comments about Bledsoe’s mother’s employment in an adult bookstore and sympathy for a kid that was being tugged by many. The story also quotes an unnamed coach who claims to have been asked for money by the ol’ ball coach in order to get a letter of intent signed by Bledsoe.  By the way, the hard-to-see transcripts of Bledsoe’s grades have been viewed by both media outlets covering the investigation.  So, someone leaked them or just handed them over.

So we got money, grades, transfers…and of course, the NCAA, John Calipari, Memphis, UK and ultimately a jump to the NBA after one season. All these elements make for a great story if you are a sports journalist. It has been rumored that this story was going to break for months. There has been rampant speculation that many involved in the big sports media markets, the North East variety, are dying to get some dirt to bring down Calipari.

The timing of this story is also interesting for a UK fan. The story broke, coinciding with the story of improprieties in the UConn men’s basketball program. Pay attention kids: ESPN offices are located in Connecticut and there’s no shortage for UConn fandom in the New York metropolitan area. It’s not paranoid to smell a little “look they are all doing it” journalism to ease the blow to the home team being called in on the rug. But you can speculate on that, you got the story, I can’t hate on you running with it. Worth noting though, the NCAA Eligibility Center validated basketball player Eric Bledsoe’s academic eligibility but that wasn’t reported at press time.

Now, I spent the better part of last fall and winter happily dismissing the naysayers of Coach Cal as jealous of the tradition of UK basketball returning.  I still hold true to my assessment, it’s okay to be hated again, but this story has made me think more about the system that kids like Eric Bledsoe and any number of poor but gifted athletes must navigate from ages 14-18. I think it might be time to call for change. Perhaps we should look into the current college sports model and look for a better way of doing things.

The current system, one orchestrated by rules created and governed for the most part by the NCAA. Under the guise of furthering a high student’s education as athlete on scholarship. The NCAA, this past year got a bit richer, signing a new contract with CBS Sports and Turner Sports for $10.8 billion dollars over 14 years. This contract is a 41 percent increase over the mammoth deal the NCAA signed back in 2001. The NCAA is expanding the tournament field to 68 teams, from the original 65. Keep in mind; this is not the total annual revenue for the NCAA. Instead, this whopping amount of cash represents the television rights to air March Madness each year. Put that together with another $55 million from ESPN for women’s and other championship broadcasts on the tube, throw that in along with marketing revenue for shirts, hats, flip-flops, flags and all of the other league-sanctioned ephemera and I think I can traipse out on a limb and say that the NCAA is making money. Gobs of it.

Now, if you are free market thinker, I’m not so much of one—but say you are—then you can say the NCAA has a product that is highly sought after; therefore they should be reimbursed for this product. I’ll give you that. We have to also justify that coaches who deliver teams to this high level of competition should be reimbursed with salaries that reflect the value of the product. Administrations and schools should be able to build new facilities both athletic and academic with proceeds from these teams and use these facilities as calling cards for recruiting more students to campus. Just makes sense doesn’t it? But I have to ask the question, if everyone is privy to their fair share of all of this money within the system, how do we, with good conscience, deny these student-athletes and their families a portion of this giant chunk of change? Do you honestly believe that a scholarship is worth the trade of millions of dollars in human capital that is being sold in the free market without the athlete being able to take part in that sale? Sold for premium price are the images of athletes on videogames, billboards, jerseys and television commercials, yet in some cases, the athlete’s mom is sitting at home in a housing project or in this case still owing $3200 in back rent to a crappy apartment in Birmingham.

Listen to me, a college scholarship, which is really a year-to-year employment contract, is not of equal value to what the typical Division-I NCAA player in a revenue-generating sport is relenting to the system he is working for. Yes, I said working for.  You have to ask yourself, would you put in the work that a student athlete at this high level must put in for 25 grand a year? I’m not saying they aren’t spoiled within the system, I’m not saying that it’s not a blast to play a game in exchange for an education but once we pick the scab of “who paid for what” in a college player’s past then we have to bleed out of this romantic notion of big man on campus and amateur athletics and think about what this big man might be bringing to the bottom line. Without the big man on campus the monolithic revenue stream is but a trickle. You have to remember, you might pay $75 for that ticket to a game to cheer him on but if you buy him and his friends a pizza afterward you might cost him his scholarship. The NCAA wouldn’t want the cash exchanged in college sports to end up anywhere other than their own system-stitched pockets.

It’s time to seriously consider a different set of rules than the ones in place by this mysterious entity known as the NCAA. This system has grown archaic, it’s using kids, many of which with few options other than to be manipulated and used by those with much to gain and little to lose as long as they continue to deliver quality grist for the mill of school-colored jerseys and pompoms. When asked why he was coming to UK, Bledsoe infamously muttered, “to get shit right.” We are all complicit as fans, we have to ask for better, we need to get shit right. If we love the notion of amateur sports and amateurs competing for the love of the game maybe we should hang out more at under-11 soccer games.



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