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Should the NCAA not care about eligibility?

It's the unofficial NCAA rules-related subject of the day. (I thought we covered that with the "Should players be paid?" stuff from this morning, but apparently not.) Should the NCAA get out of the eligibility business altogether?

The question is raised, and not for the first time, by ESPN's own Jay Bilas. On his Insider blog (much of which I'm not going to blockquote, because that kind of defeats the whole point of Insider, doesn't it?) Bilas writes that Kentucky should have had the autonomy to admit and educate Eric Bledsoe without oversight from the NCAA, because:

The school you support may not choose to admit and educate Bledsoe or any student with his qualifications, but no school or association of schools should tell another autonomous institution who to admit, educate or provide a uniform.

In the end, Bilas writes:

The NCAA should get out of the eligibility business. Its member institutions are perfectly capable of making admission and eligibility decisions on their own.

CBS' Gary Parrish agrees:

I don't think anybody is operating under the assumption that Memphis and Stanford have the same academic guidelines. What's OK at one school isn't OK at the other, nor should it be. So why doesn't the NCAA remove itself from the equation and let Memphis and Stanford decide what's good for Memphis and Stanford in terms of academic requirements? It would put eligibility back into the hands of schools, eliminate a lot of the NCAA's biggest headaches, and make much more sense than the current system that has programs getting penalized for playing players they were initially told it was OK to play.

It's an interesting theory, and the themes that underlie it are universally attractive. Autonomy. Independence. Streamlined administrative bureaucracy. All of those things sound like intrinsic improvements over the current system, which is occasionally, as in the case of Eric Bledsoe's allegedly changed grade, an unwieldy mess.

At what point, though, does increased autonomy veer into anarchy? That might be a little dramatic, so let's put it more simply: Who keeps the playing field fair? If athletic programs are expected to compete against each other with the same rewards on the line -- tournament appearances, championships, exposure, cash -- shouldn't someone be there to at least try to ensure that playing field is level? If Stanford and Memphis meet in the regular season, shouldn't there be some measure of competitive equality in place?

Writing in response to an earlier (but similar) Bilas argument, Basketball Prospectus' John Gasaway eloquently states this case:

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.

I would add one further point: The NCAA, despite all its issues, has throughout its history been dedicated primarily to one mission: Academics as a byproduct of athletic performance. Cynicism aside -- and believe me, I'm leaving plenty of my own on the sidelines right now -- the NCAA and the people who run it do genuinely care about academics. They don't want obviously unprepared students on college teams any more than they want players to receive a monthly stipend. They don't want semi-pro programs throwing academically apathetic players into an impersonal churn. (Though, ha, this happens anyway.) They want athletes to learn.

The reasoning isn't always right, and the end result isn't always fair, but you can't say the NCAA isn't consistent on this point. The organization has a vested, noble interest in that end. That's why member athletic programs have to hew to a defined set of academic standards. The fact that these standards are uniform seems entirely fair to me. If programs want to compete for NCAA tournament appearance revenues, they have to maintain those standards. Maybe I'm missing something, but what's wrong with that, exactly?

Anyway, perhaps unfortunately -- but at least realistically -- none of this theoretical noodling matters. The NCAA isn't going to turn eligibility over to schools anytime soon. (Probably never, actually.) Which means we'll have to keep on living with the system we've got.

The point is this: Even with its warts, even with its confusion, even with its ongoing "this player is eligible; oops, now he's not" frustrations ... well, things could be a lot worse. Until we can think of a plausible system that's demonstrably better -- and sorry, but allowing schools to admit whomever they please to play sports is not that -- nothing much is going to change. More importantly, it shouldn't.

Still, fun conversation, though. You have to do something in September, right?