Upping the Ante 

In its showdown with the NCAA in the Derrick Rose case, the University of Memphis is pushing back hard. Will it pay off or just lead to more sanctions?

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If it does nothing else, the University of Memphis appeal of its NCAA sanctions in the Derrick Rose/SAT affair has shed some light on the way the college sports cops do their job.

And that may be the point of this whole exercise. Cop and miscreant are facing each other down like a couple of tough guys in a parking lot standoff. The cop is threatening to slap on additional charges. The battered miscreant is saying in so many words, go ahead, make my day, I'll expose your corrupt ways to the world.

Like a hand of Texas hold 'em, the NCAA's play is becoming clearer as the hole cards are flipped. We learned last week that Rose's status as an impact player really did make a difference to the enforcers. And that the concept of double jeopardy has no meaning when the NCAA puts you on the hot seat. And that certain repeat offenders get targeted.

Even paranoid athletic departments, it seems, really do have enemies.

As for the U of M, we have to wonder what might have been if its internal cops — the compliance staff, Athletic Director R.C. Johnson, and President Shirley Raines — had stood up to former coach John Calipari and Rose as stoutly as they have to the NCAA bullies when the smoke first appeared.

Rose was one of four one-and-done basketball stars who put the U of M in the national rankings during the Calipari era. Others were Shawne Williams, DaJuan Wagner, and Tyreke Evans. Darius Washington stayed two years. The dispute over the validity of Rose's SAT score led the NCAA to strip Memphis of its 38 victories in its 2007-2008 national championship runner-up season, as well as all tournament revenue. Calipari took the head-coach job at the University of Kentucky shortly after that season. Rose headed to the NBA.

Recruiting superstars with marginal academic skills and no intentions of earning a college degree is both tricky and competitive. Calipari and his assistants were obviously very good at it, and their expertise brought fame and prosperity to the Tiger basketball program. On the other hand, it makes it hard to accept the explanations for the claims that he and the university knew as little as they say of the details in the Rose case.

The Suspect Entrance Exam

The fateful meeting for the U of M was in November 2007. Rose was questioned about his academic record and his entrance tests. The U of M 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.

Rose had been cleared by the NCAA to play. The nature of that clearance is a key issue. The university took it as a green light. The NCAA says it only meant that either Rose or somebody posing as Rose put his name on an SAT test with a "passing" score. The suspicions that ultimately led to the score being canceled came later, and Rose essentially ran out the clock by refusing to cooperate with the NCAA or Educational Testing Service (ETS) during the final weeks of the 2007-2008 season.

Rose said he took all of his own tests. There was reason, however, to suspect Rose's ability to pass a college entrance exam, if not his honesty. Before taking his final SAT in Detroit, Rose took the ACT three times in Chicago in 2007, apparently failing to make a score high enough for immediate eligibility. He told U of M officials that his mother looked at the results and told him he needed to take the test again. He says he did not look at his own mail, even though it determined his basketball future.

The actual scores are redacted in the public documents, but U of M athletic department officials and the compliance staff know them. The ACT and SAT are different, but scores can be correlated. A big improvement in a short time is highly unlikely, according to ETS. In basketball terms, it would be like increasing your vertical jump 12 inches in a few months.

The Illinois IG had someone, who later recanted, who claimed that Rose had gotten someone to take the test for him. The IG nevertheless thought there was something to the allegation and notified the U of M in October 2007 and ETS in December 2007. A handwriting analyst concluded that Rose probably did not do the cursive writing on his SAT Reasoning Test. Rose declined to take a retest or give a handwriting sample before ETS canceled his scores in May 2008.

The NCAA blames Rose for impeding the investigation.

"The difficulty in determining the motives of Rose, or even whether he engaged in academic fraud, is directly attributable to his failure to cooperate with ETS, the university, or the NCAA enforcement staff," says the November 2009 NCAA response to the U of M's appeal. "Even if he had taken the simple step of providing a handwriting sample, everyone would have a much better assessment of this case."

At the same time, the NCAA concedes it has no proof that Rose cheated or that the U of M should have suspected him of cheating and therefore not have allowed him to play.

"As for whether Rose himself 'knew or had reason to know' of the ineligibility, unfortunately we cannot be certain, but only because of Rose's failure to cooperate in the investigation. Surely the university cannot insulate itself completely from the consequences of the conduct either. Even though the university's efforts to get Rose to cooperate were commendable, his conduct still hindered the investigation considerably."

The way out of this conundrum? Something called "strict liability." Whether Rose cooperated or didn't cooperate, and whether he cheated or did not cheat, his SAT score was canceled by ETS, which made him ineligible — partly through his own inaction.

Should Memphis Officials Have Known?

To college admissions officers and compliance staff members, entrance test scores are everyday fare. A big discrepancy in scores from the same person in the same year is a red flag. Rose's teammate, Robert Dozier, had been admitted to Memphis in 2004 after false starts involving his test scores and eligibility issues. The University of Georgia denied Dozier admission because the 1260 score he made on his SAT was questioned — and he then made a 720 on his retest. Dozier was a quality player but not an elite player. Rose's scores, presumably, would draw at least as much or more attention from a concerned institution.

The NCAA sets eligibility standards for athletes using a sliding scale that accounts for test scores and grade-point averages. An ACT score below 19 can result in an athlete having to take remedial courses before taking credit courses. The national ACT average score in 2008 was 21.1.

Rose's ACT scores are redacted from the reports. But taking a year off to enroll in a preparatory school, or laying out a year for academic deficiencies like former Tiger star Anfernee Hardaway did (he later graduated), was not an option. Rose was a star, headed to the NBA, one way or another. In 2009, he was the league's Rookie of the Year.

As a college 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 the U of M urged Rose to cooperate, how much — or how little — school officials really knew, and how careful the U of M was in its treatment of the Rose brothers.

Indeed, the NCAA seems to be spoiling for a fight.

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

In an oral hearing before the NCAA earlier this year, a U of M official admitted that the university "took a risk" by playing Rose, but now the university contends that this potentially damning admission has been overplayed.

"The acknowledgement that a risk was taken is consistent with the circumstances of every student-athlete who competes, in that there is always a risk that information will later become available that indicates the student-athlete should not have been competing," the university said last week in its rebuttal. In light of the admittedly illegal special treatment of Reggie Rose, NCAA attorneys are likely to zero in on that "took a risk" interpretation when the appeal comes up next year.

Double Jeopardy?

The part of the NCAA's response that really riled the university and its supporters — and put the fear of God into some of them — was the threat of new sanctions if the ones already imposed are overturned.

"The committee inappropriately threatens the University with harsher sanctions, including ineligibility for postseason play, which is inconsistent with the spirit and intent of the NCAA Enforcement Policies and Procedures," the U of M response says.

The threats have caused some of its supporters to urge officials to drop the appeal.

"The president and director of athletics have received numerous communications demanding that the appeal be dropped to protect the University from the possibility of facing penalties that impact the innocent student-athletes and new coaching staff. ... Clearly, the committee's comments have produced a fear within the university community."

The university decided to appeal anyway and says the only thing that would justify harsher penalties would be new evidence. Otherwise, the "threat" amounts to "double jeopardy," the rebuttal says.

Another issue is Rose's status as an impact player. The NCAA response says Rose "provided the university a significant competitive advantage," suggesting that a cheating role player or a star on a team that flopped in the first round of the tournament might get an NCAA pass. The university says no previous NCAA case involving wins taken away "makes any reference to the athletic ability of the involved student-athlete or to the competitive success of the team."

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, the penalties are likely to stick. The U of M is taking on the NCAA on their court, under their rules. Arguing that the NCAA doesn't know its own rules is a long shot.

The Testing Cops

Cheating on an ACT or SAT exam is rare and has few consequences for the person taking the test. A spokesman for ETS says there are approximately 1,000 investigations a year and that 500 of those are cleared. Some 3 million SAT exams are taken each year.

The ACT administered 2.5 million tests this year. A small number were fishy enough to investigate, but a spokesman would not be more specific, because "the more we talk about security the less secure the test becomes."

If an SAT test score is canceled, it can be taken again with impunity. Suspected cheaters are notified twice by certified letter and have 14 days to respond. On the SAT, the student can clear up the suspicions, retake the test, or allow the college or an arbitration panel to make a ruling. An improvement of more than 40 points is unusual. About one-third of retesters fail to raise their scores at all.

Rules regarding confidentiality are strict. This could help the U of M's appeal claim that it had no reason to keep Rose from playing.

"If the score is canceled," said ETS spokesman Ed Colby, "that would be the first time any college that received the score would be notified. Up until that point the only person made aware of the review would be the student."

ETS continued to investigate Rose's score on the SAT in 2008, while he was enrolled in college. There is no statute of limitations on score reviews. It is not clear exactly what caused their suspicions to linger after Rose had already entered college and been NCAA-certified as eligible to play basketball. A handwriting analyst hired by ETS said Rose "probably" did not produce the cursive writing on the exam form. Rose (and his mother, who opened his ACT score reports) either did not receive his notices about the investigation or ignored them, in effect running out the clock while Memphis was playing in the 2008 NCAA tournament.

Thinking Outside the Athletic Box

Deception is overrated. When famous cheaters are exposed — think Bernard Madoff, Allen Stanford, and Tiger Woods — the reaction from the public, the enablers, and, in Madoff's case, the perpetrator himself, is often "What took you so long?" Insiders can usually smell a fraud. Journalists Jayson Blair at The New York Times and Stephen Glass at The New Republic were suspected by their colleagues, even as editors with a stake in their innocence and their employer's reputation stood by them.

College instructors are expected to run an honest classroom and take allegations of plagiarism or cheating seriously. A student suspected of cheating in, say, a chemistry or English class at the U of M would not likely be "certified" if his response was a flat denial and a refusal to retest.

If the University of Memphis is in it to the bitter end with the NCAA, it better have Derrick Rose on its side, testifying in the flesh and unredacted.

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