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June 4, 2010
Rough Justice
Programs Pay, Players Move Up

by Asher Fusco


Many parties have reason for concern regarding the NCAA's investigation of former Kentucky guard Eric Bledsoe. Certainly Kentucky has a stake in the matter, as do the NCAA and fans of college basketball. Bledsoe, however, doesn't have much reason to worry. The Birmingham product, whose high school academic record is being investigated, presumably will soon be playing in the NBA no matter the result of the NCAA's probe.

Whether or not the NCAA decides anything is wrong with Bledsoe's transcript, the situation begs the question: Do amateur basketball's rules effectively deter players from accepting improper benefits or gaming the academic system? In some cases the NCAA has put its foot down early enough to stop players from beating the system. In other cases, players have broken rules before or during their college careers, only to find the greener pastures of professional sports before journalists or the NCAA could find evidence of impropriety.

The case that immediately springs to mind is that of Derrick Rose. As a freshman in 2007-08, Rose helped Memphis arrive at the brink of a national title and declared for the NBA draft soon after. Approximately one year after the Tigers' second-place finish, the NCAA opened an investigation centered on Rose--specifically SAT results turned in under his name, results that may or may not have been his.

When the investigation was complete Memphis had to vacate its record 38-win season. But by the time the NCAA's decree came down, the Chicago Bulls had already made Rose the first pick in the 2008 draft and shelled out about $4.8 million for his first year of service.

One of the players who kept Rose from cutting down the nets in San Antonio in 2008 was also able to overcome a questionable high school academic record to make millions in the NBA. Darrell Arthur, who as a sophomore helped Kansas win the 2008 title, had two of his team's high school titles revoked after an investigation uncovered improper grade changes for players, including Arthur.

Along with Baylor's Kevin Rogers and one other player, Arthur had grades changed from failing to passing and thus was deemed eligible to play at Dallas South Oak Cliff High. Because Arthur made it through the NCAA Clearinghouse, Kansas did not face any negative consequences, but South Oak Cliff lost two Texas Class 4A titles as a result of the violation. Arthur, meanwhile, earned about $977,000 in his rookie year with the Memphis Grizzlies.

Or to lean on a non-basketball example for a moment, Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush did a fairly good job of getting into an NCAA eligibility mess without much consequence. Sure, Bush could lose the 2005 Heisman he won as a star running back at USC if it's found his family accepted improper benefits, but the NCAA can't take away his Subway ads or touch his paycheck (projected at $8 million this coming season).

Count O.J. Mayo as another beneficiary of USC's apparently not-so-above-board recruiting standards in the recent past. The blockbuster Tim Floyd signee gave the Trojans one season of high-octane offense before bolting for the NBA and leaving behind talk of recruiting violations. That NCAA probe led to USC basketball's self-imposed one-year ban on postseason play.

Of course not every player escapes the amateur ranks scot free before the NCAA hammer drops. Renardo Sidney came to Mississippi State a year ago as a highly regarded prospect. Unfortunately for Sidney and the Bulldogs, the NCAA found out he was a highly regarded prospect who'd lied to NCAA investigators about receiving improper benefits at the prep level. The mix-up, which initially cost Sidney scholarship offers from UCLA and USC, set him back to the tune of all of last season, the first nine games of the coming campaign, and $11,800 to repay the benefits received. Sidney could still make a case for his NBA future during his remaining three years of eligibility, but he hasn't helped himself thus far.

Then there's the cautionary example supplied by Tiny Gallon, who made it through his freshman season at Oklahoma this past year without attracting much attention from NBA scouts. That's a shame for Gallon, because any hope he had of returning to Norman to improve his stock disappeared when the Sooner athletic department launched an internal investigation into a $3,000 bank transfer he received from a financial adviser. Things don't look good for Oklahoma, which is reviewing phone calls between an assistant and the financial adviser to determine whether any NCAA violations occurred. As for Gallon, his situation puts him in an interesting spot--shut out of college but not yet welcome in the professional ranks.

Lastly, we've seen players in the one-and-done era bypass college entirely for the paychecks and supposedly steeper development curve of pro ball abroad--with mixed results. Brandon Jennings, whose eligibility wasn't a sure thing after committing to Arizona, survived a tough year in Italy to become a decent NBA starter from the beginning of his American pro career. On the other hand Jeremy Tyler took off for Israel before finishing high school only to play just eight minutes per game. He quit Maccabi Haifa with five weeks remaining in the season.

One could argue that players like Rose, Arthur, Bush, and, perhaps, Bledsoe were able to work the system and hit the jackpot. At the same time players like Sidney and Gallon could see their professional careers affected by investigations and/or NCAA punishments.

Clearly the NCAA cares about issues of eligibility, academic and otherwise. But when young players watch an NBA game and see guys who cashed in before the rules of amateur basketball could catch up to them, the question turns from "Why cheat?" to "Why not?"

Asher Fusco is a writer in New York City.

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This is Not 2008 (06/03)
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