Last week, in a development that surprised exactly no one, a report surfaced that the NCAA was “inquiring” about the high school career of star 2012 Kentucky commit Nerlens Noel.@@http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/09/sports/basketball/nerlens-noel-kentucky-recruit-attracts-ncaa-inquiry.html?_r=1@@
It was so predictable only because John Calipari@@http://www.coachcal.com/@@ is the coach of Kentucky, he of the slicked-back hair and two vacated Final Four appearances, known alternately as the best and worst thing to happen to college athletics, depending on who you ask. So yes, of course the NCAA would start investigating a kid before he even stepped foot on campus in Lexington. It was only the next logical step in a process that will probably send Calipari packing for good at some point down the line.
Given the way things work these days, many people likely saw the author’s tweet — prefaced with an imposing all-caps “BREAKING” label that might have been a little excessive — and assumed the worst, without actually reading the story itself. And there’s nothing wrong with that, unless the image of Noel as some sort of deviant or malcontent begins to spread.
Because, if you actually read the report, there’s nothing really incriminating at all in there, and it’s actually more infuriating than anything else. The spark that lit the NCAA’s suspiciously green fire was Noel’s reported relationship with an assistant who “did not have Noel’s best interests at heart.” And then there was a second relationship with someone whose LinkedIn page led viewers to (gasp) a sports agency website. Naturally, the NCAA is also concerned about Noel’s “finances,” and how he managed to visit both Kentucky and Louisville without the schools paying for it.
That’s pretty much it. A whole slew of speculation without any real foundation, and even in the worst-case scenario, it’s hard to see why anyone should care about this. And yet there’s Noel’s high school principal, Louis Baldi,@@http://bostonherald.com/sports/high_school/general/view.bg?articleid=1061130361&srvc=sports&position=4@@ discussing what he and the NCAA officers termed “concerns we had as adults” regarding Noel’s situation.
Never mind the easy joke about the NCAA acting like “adults” in any situation, ever. Even if he didn’t mean it that way, Baldi’s comments came across as exceedingly condescending in a discussion about a player who happens to be an adult himself (he turned 18 in April). It was a perfect representation of how NCAA athletes have been treated for centuries — as faceless, nameless pawns within an impossibly large game.
Just like the most meaningless pieces on the chess board, players like Noel are severely limited in how they can move about the path of life. If they deviate even slightly from what is perceived as acceptable or, in NCAA parlance, “within their best interests,” the kings, queens and even the rooks come down with the wrath of a thousand letters of inquiry.
There’s such a vicious irony in that “within their best interests” statement because in reality it’s about everything but the student athlete’s well being. The NCAA targeted Noel not to protect him, but to protect itself — to keep up the ever-crumbling facade that it’s a legitimate enterprise. What happens to Noel couldn’t matter less to them; if it did, this information wouldn’t have come out in the first place and Noel would have been saved from being nationally scrutinized before he even graduated high school.
Frankly, I don’t care how Noel finances his life or who his mentors are. No one really should and it would be a mistake to look at this as anything but the NCAA trying to stop a flood with a bath plug.
If the NCAA is serious about rebuilding its credibility, it should first look in its gold plated mirror — not at a high school student trying to get by.