The strange ruling on Eric Bledsoe's grades

"We think you're lying, but we can't prove it. You're free to go."

It sounds like bad dialogue on a network TV cop drama. (You know David Caruso's dropped that line at least five times. Then the sunglasses go on, and the magic happens.) But it's far more real than that. It is, in essence, the ruling handed down by the Birmingham Board of Education today. And it, for lack of a better term, is profoundly weird.

The Board, in examining allegations that former Kentucky player Eric Bledsoe was potentially ineligible for the 2009-10 Kentucky season thanks to changed grades during his high school years, hired an independent law firm (the Birmingham-based White, Arnold and Dowd) to investigate the matter. One grade in particular, an Algebra III change from a C to an A that just so happened to raise Bledsoe's GPA high enough to make him NCAA-eligible, raised the hair on the school board's neck.

So after three months, that law firm presented its report to the board today, which you can read in PDF form here. The verdict? According to the firm, the teacher's explanation for changing Bledsoe's Algebra grade was "not credible." That would seem to lend itself toward Bledsoe's ultimate ineligibility.

But -- and here's the weird part -- the Board decided the firm's report wasn't sufficient evidence of wrongdoing. The grade will remain an A. Bledsoe's transcript lives on. Unless something new comes to light, Kentucky's 2009-10 season goes unvacated.

In other words, a school board used taxpayer money to hire a reputable independent firm, led by former President of the Alabama State Bar Mark White and retired Federal Court judge and Civil Rights pioneer U.W. Clemon, to investigate a former student's transcript. Then, once that firm presented its report -- which, despite the almost-impossible-to-provide evidence of actual wrongdoing, is pretty clear in its judgment, ethics-wise -- the Board decided to basically ignore it. So why spend the money? Why waste the time? Why hire the firm if its investigation only mattered so much?

Naturally, Kentucky fans are rather pleased by this. Still, given the firm's report, it must feel like winning on a technicality.

According to White, Arnold and Dowd, in the first term of the 2008-09 school year, Bledsoe had 10 of 14 recorded scores, including final grades, "conspicuously changed." In the second term that year, seven of Bledsoe's 10 scores were, again, "conspicuously changed." (This makes for funny reading, actually: Because those exact scores are redacted, portions of the report go like this: "However, it appears that a test score of 'RD was changed to 'RD', that a test score was changed from 'RD' to 'RD', and that a test score was changed from 'RD' to 'RD.'" Good to know?)

In both terms, the report says, scores were "written over" to reflect higher grades, as though some third-grader was trying to trick his parents into believing he got a B and not a D. The report also says the teacher in question changed Bledsoe's grades "more frequently than those of any other students in his class."

None of it sounds like an exoneration. Frankly, it sounds a little sleazy. Maybe it's not enough evidence to prove that Bledsoe's transcript rendered him ineligible -- and you can debate the merits of this whole enterprise in the first place -- but it's not exactly "not guilty." Despite all that, the Birmingham Board of Education decided to issue its ruling as such. Which, again: weird.

So what happens now? Not much, probably. The only worry left for Kentucky fans was hinted at by NCAA spokesman Chuck Wynne in the hours before the Board's hearing and report. According to the Birmingham News:

Prior to the release of the Bledsoe report, NCAA spokesman Chuck Wynne wrote by e-mail that the NCAA reserves the right to change the eligibility status of a player if "new and correct" information comes to light that was not previously available.

"The entire process relies on the integrity of information no matter when it is provided/discovered, and who is providing it," Wynne wrote. "If there are questions about the integrity of the information, the institution and the NCAA work together to determine what happened.

"In the end, it's the NCAA's responsibility to get certification right even if it means changing an earlier decision. If the institution knew there was inaccurate information, it becomes an enforcement issue."

If anything, that sounds like the NCAA will at least take a passing glance at the report. More likely, though, is that it's a simple explanation for the NCAA's ongoing eligibility vigilance.

On Friday night, Wynne told ESPN.com's Andy Katz: “We’re going to review the report and then we’ll work with the University of Kentucky to see if that has any impact. That’s the process. The bylaws obligate schools to work with us and Kentucky will work with our Eligibility Center and membership services. We review the report and then a decision would be made. The process has to play out.’’

But it'd be difficult to imagine the organization vigorously pursuing Bledsoe's eligibility further, especially given the Birmingham board's decision. The NCAA can't just reach down and start meddling in the affairs of school boards, after all.

Either way, this is essentially what we're talking about:

  • A high school player that may or may not have had his now-redacted grades changed to meet an arbitrary (and, depending on who you ask, unnecessary) eligibility requirement handed down by a large non-profit organization.

  • A report that says those grades were changed, and the ones who changed them couldn't come up with good reasons why.

  • A school board that said, "Great, but we're taking the teacher's word anyway."

  • And a group of fans apparently ecstatic about this ruling. Why? Because this way, the aforementioned non-profit can't issue a decree saying games that obviously took place -- I saw them; we were there -- never actually took place at all. Reality remains intact. Much rejoicing ensues.

In other words, like I said: profoundly weird. But none of it quite rises to the level of: "We think you're lying, but we can't prove it. You're free to go."

Amidst a mess of inexplicable outcomes, strange explanations and doubtful recriminations, that one has to take the cake.