The Key Question for UM, NCAA, and Rose

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Did the University of Memphis have reason to believe Derrick Rose cheated on his entrance exam and therefore should not have been allowed to play before the start of the 2007-2008 season?

After reading and rereading all of the public documents (big caveat: important facts are redacted or not available) along with hundreds of comments and commentaries on Rose and the NCAA, I think that's the key question as the UM appeal of its penalties runs its course.

And, sorry UM fans, but I think the answer is probably (second caveat, same as above) "yes." Here's why.

Rose was questioned by UM in November, 2007, about his academic record and his entrance tests. UM was responding to allegations raised by the Illinois schools inspector general's office (IG) which was looking into allegations coming out of Rose's high school in Chicago.

That meeting was huge. Its importance and implications must have been clear to every participant. Rose was a superstar recruit, a million-dollar baby. He was also clearly a marginal student and all but certain "one and done" college athlete. It was now or never.

As it has said many times, UM knew Rose had been cleared by the NCAA to play. That means that either Rose or somebody posing as Rose put his name on an SAT test with a "passing" score. But before taking the SAT in Detroit, Rose took the ACT three times in Chicago in 2007, obviously failing to make a score high enough for immediate eligibility. The SAT score is redacted in the public documents, but UM athletic officials and the compliance staff — whose purpose is insuring compliance with the rules — know it. The ACT and SAT are different, but scores can be correlated. A big improvement in a short time is highly unlikely, according to the Educational Testing Service. Also, the IG had someone, who later recanted, saying that Rose had someone take the test for him. The IG nevertheless thought there was something to the allegation and notified UM in October and the Educational Testing Service (ETS) in December 2007.

So put yourself in that room. Everyone knows the stakes, and everyone is an expert, one way or another, in the intricacies of collegiate athletics eligibility. Rose's teammate, Robert Dozier, had been admitted after several false starts involving his test scores and eligibility issues. UM asks Rose about a grade change on his high school transcript, and that issue is cleared up to everyone's satisfaction. But there's another allegation about the SAT test in Detroit. Rose is asked if he took his own tests. He says he did.

We don't know the details. Was he asked if he took ALL of his own tests? Or why he took three of them in Chicago and one in Detroit? Or what his scores were and why the improvement fourth time around? Most important, did anyone say something like this: "Derrick, this is a big deal, it's hard for all of us, but you can clear this thing right here and now. That's either your handwriting on the SAT Reasoning Test or someone else's handwriting. These hardass investigators in Illinois say it's possibly someone else's. We hope they're wrong but they wouldn't have brought it our attention if they didn't have strong suspicions and we need to be sure. How about giving us a sample?"

Rose, according to all of the public documents, never did that, not then and not any other time over the next two years to this day, despite being "urged" by UM to cooperate. As a player, he got the star treatment, as did his brother Reggie, whose travel freebies, according to the NCAA, were enough to make Derrick Rose ineligible apart from the test issue.

The NCAA plainly has doubts about how strongly UM urged Rose to cooperate. Both sides agree UM "took a risk" in allowing Rose to play. When he was officially declared ineligible in May of 2008, the NCAA put UM in a "strict liability" situation and penalized the university accordingly. Now the issue of fairness and appropriateness of the penalties is being challenged (unless UM changes its mind in light of the NCAA Infractions Committee's assertion last week that it might seek to remand the case if the penalties are taken away). The key issue is what UM knew before the 2007-2008 season and what UM did about it.

In exceptionally strong language, the author of last week's NCAA response, coordinator of appeals Jerry R. Parkinson, basically accuses UM officials of lying about what they knew about Rose's test scores. "That statement is simply false," says the NCAA about UM's position that it "received NO indication that there was even an issue with the test scores" until May of 2008. Parkinson says UM gave "a sanitized version of the circumstances surrounding Rose's test" and adds that the IG and ETS Board of Review found "substantial evidence" to cancel Rose's SAT Reasoning Test score.

The public record shows that the Illinois IG raised the test issue to UM in October of 2007. But the exhibits that would provide the details are redacted. Was it an "oh, by the way" thing at the end of a phone call or a stronger "we're pretty sure Rose didn't take his SAT" statement? We don't know.

This is where I think context is important and undermine's UM's appeal. I think of how other professionals deal with cheating allegations — plagiarism by a reporter, malpractice by a medical person, manipulated trades by a stockbroker, or forged time sheets by a production worker. To an outsider, the details might look strange and confusing. But the pros and insiders know. And the offenders usually know they know.

Which is not to say the guilty get caught. Journalism, to stay close to home, has harbored some notorious frauds at The New York Times (Jason Blair), Washington Post (Janet Cooke), and The New Republic (Stephen Glass). They worked for, supposedly, the best editors in the business. And for a while the talented cheaters got away with it.

Another avenue UM might profitably pursue, and which has not come up much in the comments and commentaries that I have read, is Rose's status as an impact player. Last week's NCAA response says Rose "provided the university a significant competitive advantage." Does this mean that if Rose had been a benchwarmer he would have gotten an NCAA pass? Or that if Memphis had lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament the NCAA would have overlooked "strict liability"? Also, the response several times calls UM "a repeat violator." As the university and its defenders have said, what of other repeat violators?

Rose's case is surely no lay down, but as the NCAA says, his cooperation could have put the allegations to bed pretty quickly. As long as Rose stays silent, I think the penalties are likely to stick. UM fans might give Rose the benefit of the doubt, but I don't think the NCAA Infractions Appeals Committee will; on the contrary, it could take an even harder line to avoid losing face. UM's best hope is get full disclosure and a handwriting sample from Rose. If this were a trial, this would be the time where the defense lawyer dramatically says, "the defense calls Derrick Rose."

But if that didn't happen sooner, there's not much reason to think it will happen later.

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