This college football season kicked off with 17 games on Aug. 29. That was a Thursday. For those who care, that was the night before Friday classes.
University of Kentucky professor Alan D. DeSantis cares.
"A Thursday game used to be a very rare occurrence ... ," he said recently. And to start this season with 17 Thursday games? "That, to me, spoke volumes."
The message DeSantis heard: Filling television windows with sports entertainment matters more to college athletic leaders than the players getting the best chance at a college education.
As UK's faculty representative to athletics from 2005 to 2009, DeSantis made class attendance "one of my pet causes." He and other in-league faculty reps worried about athletes around the country returning from mid-week road games long after midnight. The faculty reps lobbied the Southeastern Conference to make athletics and its television masters yield to classroom concerns. They repeatedly asked for limits on the mid-week games that took players away from campus.
"And I lost every round," he said.
The faculty reps considered taking their concerns to a presumed higher authority, the NCAA. But with March Madness taking many athletes away from campus for most of a month, plus a national championship game in the made-for-TV Monday prime-time slot rather than the available Sunday ... well, why bother?
DeSantis, a professor of communication at UK, was among those cited in a recent three-part series by The New York Times that detailed the influence ESPN wields in big-time college athletics. ESPN will televise football games on each Thursday throughout the 2013 season. Fox Sports 1 and other networks also will televise mid-week games.
UK plays at Mississippi State on a made-for-ESPN Thursday night (Oct. 24). But the Cats are hardly alone. Louisville, which has a documented anytime-anyplace thirst for TV exposure, plays three Thursday games (Oct. 18, Nov. 8, Dec. 5).
UK and U of L are hardly alone. Besides Thursdays, college football games will be played Tuesday through Friday the weeks of Nov. 5-8, Nov. 12-15 and Nov. 19-22. Fridays should be included in the missed-class calculation because teams usually travel the day before games.
Here's a sobering thought: Football is the regimented sport played on a once-a-week metronome. By contrast, basketball is a sloppy overload of Big Mondays, Super Tuesdays, Wednesday Night Hoops, Thursday Night Showcases, GameDay Saturdays and God-rested-but-why-should-we Sundays.
Counting the SEC Tournament, Kentucky could potentially play road games every day of a week except Monday this coming basketball season.
"I hope our fans are enlightened enough to know somebody is sacrificing a lot to feed their insatiable appetite to be entertained," DeSantis said. "The people paying that price are 18-, 19-, 20-year-old student-athletes who are trying to maintain scholarships as well as get A's and B's in their classes."
SEC Executive Associate Commissioner Mark Womack noted the "challenge" of competing interests: The athletic world's desire for TV exposure and dollars, the contractual obligation to schedule games according to TV needs and the increasingly quaint idea of athletes getting a college education.
The SEC has the added factor of improving its basketball profile. Or as Womack said, "do everything we can to promote that sport." That aim apparently silenced any SEC versions of Bob Knight. Ever the contrarian, Knight complained about TV deals mandating 9 p.m. tip-offs for Big Ten teams.
But Womack balked at the notion of TV using the rights fees it pays as leverage in dictating schedules as "a bit of a stretch."
DeSantis said that other sports as well as football and men's basketball complicate their players' academic lives. Other sports increasingly submit to the needs of TV.
"There is enough blame to go around," he said. "ESPN and other media outlets have to take responsibility ... when they keep asking for more and more entertainment so they can amuse us 24 hours a day. They have to know the only way to fill that order is through increasing use of our student-athletes."
The role of a faculty rep includes traveling with teams on some road trips. DeSantis had an epiphany one mid-week night when Kentucky's basketball team played at Arkansas.
"'Are you kidding me?'" he recalled thinking. "'I have to teach a class tomorrow morning. What the hell am I doing in Fayetteville at nine o'clock on a Tuesday?'
"When I became aware of it is when it became inconvenient for me."
DeSantis suggested the SEC shorten seasons as a means to lessen the need for mid-week games.
"Oh, my God," he said of how league big wigs received this idea. "You would have thought I suggested the dismantling of God, the church and apple pie."
The SEC athletics directors killed the faculty reps' ideas. Impossible to work logistically, they said. More importantly, the SEC would be put at a competitive disadvantage if other leagues did not do likewise.
That was in about 2005 or 2006. DeSantis does not find the trend since then encouraging.
"At least those schedules were being dictated within the SEC," he said. And now? "So much is being dictated by television."
College programs want the TV dollars to help pay for facility upgrades and expanding salaries. Therefore, college programs follow TV dictates.
DeSantis offered a solution: a rule banning games or travel for athletes prior to 3 p.m. Fridays or after 5 p.m. Sundays. Even DeSantis knows that such a rule has little chance of being adopted.
"It's very difficult for (any school) to say, 'Thanks for the invitation to play Tuesday at 9 o'clock in Athens, Ga., but no thanks,'" DeSantis said. "'We think it's more important for kids to get a good night's sleep.'
"Although the students love what they do, they're fighting an academic battle with one hand tied behind their back."
Television concerns can hinder classroom performance. But Alan D. DeSantis lauded the academic achievement of college athletes while he served as UK's faculty representative to athletics and afterward.
"I acquired a much deeper respect for student-athletes," he said. "I cannot believe they do what they do."
In the 2013 spring semester, UK athletes met Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart's goal of an overall 3.0 grade-point average. That was a first.
"If you're looking to hire somebody with a very unique skill set, hire a student-athlete," DeSantis said. "Not only do they have time management skills, but they have acquired an ability to work in teams. Sacrifice. Dedication. I am a huge fan of the student-athlete. It is amazing they are able to accomplish what they accomplish on and off the field."
No UK player made Blue Ribbon Yearbook's first All-American team, which was announced last week. Second, third and other All-American teams will be announced later.
Editor Chris Dortch said the yearbook considered Julius Randle, wavered a bit and then decided to go instead with another freshman, Andrew Wiggins of Kansas.
Other Blue Ribbon first-team All-Americans were Louisville senior Russ Smith, Oklahoma State sophomore Marcus Smart, Creighton senior Doug McDermott and Michigan State junior Adreian Payne.
Here's a surprise: Only one UK player in the last 10 years has made Blue Ribbon's first All-American team in the last 10 years. That player: Terrence Jones for 2011-12.
Sharing the ball
No secret that sharing the ball and the glory will be a theme we hear often this coming basketball season. A prime example came in the 2012 Final Four.
In the national semifinals against Louisville, no UK player took more than nine shots. Doron Lamb led by taking nine shots (and making four).
That kind of sharing has happened before in Final Four victories, but not often.
Prior to UK in 2012, it last happened in 2007 when Florida beat UCLA 76-66 in the semifinals. Taurean Green (2-for-9) and Lee Humphrey (5-for-9) took the most shots for the Gators.
Here are three other examples in national championship games:
■ When Duke beat Kansas 72-65 in 1991, Christian Laettner (3-for-8) and Billy McCaffrey (6-for-8) took the most shots.
■ When Villanova upset Georgetown 66-64 in the remarkable 1985 finals in Rupp Arena, Dwayne McClain (5-for-7) and Ed Pinckney (5-for-7) took the most shots. Villanova only took 28 shots.
■ When Ohio State beat California 75-55 in 1960, Jerry Lucas (7-for-9) took the most shots.
Best since Kemp?
Former UK All-American Kenny Walker roiled the Twitter world last week when it became known that he considered Julius Randle the best UK freshman since Shawn Kemp. Of course, that's saying something considering such freshmen as Jamal Mashburn (1990-91), John Wall (2009-10), Anthony Davis (2011-12), Ron Mercer (1995-96), DeMarcus Cousins (2009-10) and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (2011-12).
In a follow-up telephone conversation, Walker clarified. He said he meant that he considered Randle the most physically prepared and athletically skilled UK freshman since Kemp arrived and departed before playing a game in the late-1980s. As good as they were from the beginning, Mashburn (the gold standard for any UK freshman?), Wall and other star freshmen needed to get stronger or fitter or better in a harder-to-define intangible, Walker said.
"This kid is just physically gifted with everything," Walker said of Randle. "There's no weakness. He's got the mental part. He's got the physical part."
To Alex Poythress. He turned 20 on Friday. ... To John Wall. He turned 23 on Friday. ... To Dale Brown. The former UK guard turned 45 on Friday. ... To Mark Pope. He turns 41 on Wednesday. ... To Nazr Mohammed. He turned 36 on Thursday. ... To Rob Evans. The former Ole Miss coach turned 67 on Saturday. ... To John Clougherty. He turns 70 on Tuesday. ... To Steve Smith. The Oak Hill Academy coach and Asbury College grad turned 58 on Saturday.