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Eligibility is in schools' hands

Before last week's Eric Bledsoe quasi-bombshell, it was fair to say that most college hoops fans weren't all that familiar with the work of the NCAA's Eligibility Center. A week later, few of us are experts on the matter, but thanks in large part to some good explanatory reporting from the Lexington Herald-Leader's Jerry Tipton, we're getting there.

Questions revolve around Bledsoe's suddenly improved high school transcript and some alleged ugliness on the part of his coach in marketing Bledsoe as a prospect, among other potential issues. Tipton discussed those issues with a private investigator, who said that Kentucky should have known if Bledsoe had potential red flags on his transcript even if Bledsoe was cleared by the NCAA's Eligibility Center. That way, Kentucky wasn't risking an investigation after Bledsoe had already completed his one-and-done year at the school.

This is a confusing notion for most college hoops fans. Why should a school be held liable for a player's ineligibility if the NCAA's own Eligibility Center cleared that player in the first place? How is that fair?

Thing is, it's not. But it happens anyway, because the Eligibility Center just isn't big, agile, or well-endowed enough to catch every potential problem player from the start. To wit:

The short answer is that in these cases — "a very small percentage" each year according to the NCAA — new information surfaces that dramatically changes how to judge an incoming freshman's eligibility. Also the initial ruling on a player's eligibility can be preliminary in nature given that the NCAA's Eligibility Center has less than 55 employees charged with judging whether about 90,000 incoming athletes each year can play for college teams. [...]

In explaining the fairness in a player being judged eligible and subsequently ruled ineligible, Wynne noted that the normal preliminary eligibility review can be a cursory look at the two components that determine eligibility: the grade-point average in 16 core courses and the college entrance exam score.

"No red flags and you're off to the next transcript," Wynne said.

In other words, if you don't submit your transcript to the NCAA with a giant red sticker on it that says "I probably don't deserve to get into college! My transcript is really suspicious! You should probably take a look at this thing!", there's a decent chance you're going to get past the NCAA Eligibility Center. And even if you do put that big red sticker on your transcript, it's entirely possible the worst that happens is the NCAA submits you to a follow-up "extensive review" -- which happens each year to hundreds of applicants, one of which was Eric Bledsoe -- and your chances of getting in are still pretty good.

It's a 55-employee center servicing 90,000 applicants each year. You could make the argument that those 55 employees could do a better job. Maybe so. But it's not hard to see why some transcripts slip through the cracks. That's almost 100,000 cracks.

So the NCAA misses some stuff. Then, when new information comes to light, information that might take a year or two to surface, it goes back and judges the eligibility of the player again. Which is why the Derrick Rose-SAT stuff happened at Memphis and why the NCAA can and will investigate what it views as questionable stuff on the part of Bledsoe or anyone else it hears naughty things about, even if those naughty things got past its initial review process.

Which brings us back to the moral of the story, for Kentucky and any other school thinking about signing a recruit with potential red flags: It's on you. (Schools surely already know this, but it's something of a new concept for yours truly, so bear with me.) The Eligibility Center may clear a player, but it assumes no responsibility for being wrong and reserves the right to come after you if it misses something and you benefit. This may seem unfair, but all it asks of member schools is that they assume the consequences for not remaining vigilant about eligibility and admissions.

It's not exactly a radical stance. It's also not the best way to manage eligibility. But, in the immortal and overused words of Brian McNamee, it is what it is. It's the only system the NCAA has. Schools better act accordingly.