College athletics nears a significant crossroads. Soon, leaders must either make college sports strictly for college students or drop the pretense and allow programs to openly hire the best mercenaries money can buy.
That's the inevitable choice mandated by a system that forces educational pursuit to coexist, however awkwardly, with big-time athletics.
So says David Ridpath, a respected observer of the games we enjoy.
"The core issue causing the problem is we're trying to align a commercialized sports enterprise with academic standards," he said in a telephone interview last week.
Ridpath is an associate professor of sports management at Ohio University. He's also a leader of the Drake Group, a collection of faculty and university staffers that promotes — don't laugh — academic integrity in athletics.
The Drake Group (based at the University of New Haven, which seemingly reflects its lack of influence) has proposed a way of making college sports an activity for true college students: freshmen ineligibility, removal of the academic tutor operation from athletic departments, faculty alone deciding if a prospective player meets admissions standards.
Even Ridpath, a former college wrestling coach, finds it difficult to believe college athletics will adopt such changes.
"The push-back would be so huge that neither the presidents, trustees, nor, frankly, the faculty would have the gumption to do that," he said.
So that leaves the option of loosening, if not severing, the ties that bind college and sport. Only this country has such a system. Ridpath suggested that the U.S. follow the example of Europe and have sports club teams. The Kentucky (in a more generic sense) Wildcats. If so inclined, players could attend classes and pursue a degree from UK. But it wouldn't be required.
"If Kentucky played Louisville under that scenario, I think you'd pack Rupp Arena and no one really cares," Ridpath said. "The sad part is at the end of the day, and I put myself in this camp, when the game starts, I'm not really thinking that much about whether these kids are students or not."
Meanwhile, scandals mock the notion of athletics and academics coexisting. Of recent vintage, there were the reports of North Carolina athletes receiving favorable academic benefits within the school's African and Afro-American Studies department.
UNC's internal investigation suggested that students who were not athletes also benefited from anomalies specific to the department, such as unauthorized grade changes, forged faculty signatures on grade rolls and limited or no class time.
"This was not an athletic scandal," former North Carolina Governor Jim Martin reportedly told UNC's board of trustees late last year. "It was an academic scandal, which is worse."
Ridpath was not buying that finding.
"Quite frankly, the North Carolina investigation, I felt, was a whitewash," he said. "And to say it was an academic scandal and not an athletic scandal was just ridiculous."
An almost unimaginable scandal came in 2011 when former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was charged and later convicted of sexual abuse of children. Coaching icon Joe Paterno was forced to resign when it was perceived that he did too little to end the abuse.
"I was hoping, maybe, Sandusky might be something of a tripping point," Ridpath said. "And I think it was to some extent. For some people to say, wait a second, here's this iconic coach where this happened and he did nothing about it (in order) to protect the brand."
The problems in college athletics that Ridpath sees are systematic. Not as titillating as the well-publicized scandals, but pervasive in a business-as-usual sort of way.
Last week's college football signing day sounded and felt like an NFL Draft. Signings. Ratings. Projections.
"In my mind, it has nothing to do with education," Ridpath wrote in an email. "And even if players were recruited with educational promises (major, etc.), it usually falls away as eligibility maintenance and winning take precedent. ...
"It is not just signing day. Overall, the education component in intercollegiate (athletics) is mostly a facade. Even in sports other than football and basketball. If we cared so much about education, we would not let freshmen compete, and we would guarantee a five-year scholarship with a modest stipend."
UK Coach John Calipari has spoken about the power conferences someday governing themselves, thus making the NCAA irrelevant. Welcoming that vision, Ridpath likened the NCAA's efforts to preserve the appearance of amateurism as outdated and impractical. College sports needs to follow the example of the Olympics, which opened its competition to professionals.
"We just need to get with the times," he said. "Just like the Olympics, this model doesn't exist."
As Ridpath sees it, college athletics will continue along as is for another five or 10 years.
"Eventually, there will be enough and we have to say, 'Wait a second. This has gone way, way too far. We have to change the model,'" he said.
"And I think it's eventually going to happen."
For UK teams, a nickname makes for a mark of distinction. The Fabulous Five. The Fiddlin' Five. Rupp's Runts.
So, fans sent nickname ideas for the current Cats.
■ "I want to suggest a name, 'Unpredictable Cats,' for this year's UK basketball team," Charlie Cook wrote in an email. He said he was inspired by the up-and-down ride in the game at Mississippi.
"Having been up by 17 points and down to one point in the lead, then responding with a 13-point win illustrates their unpredictability," Cook wrote. He noted that UK lost at Alabama after leading by 16.
"I don't think we have a championship team ... ," Cook wrote. "but ... the 'Unpredictable Cats' could be a surprise on a given night."
Cook, 85, has lived in Lexington since 1948. He retired in 1994 after having had what he called "three careers." In retirement, he does research and writes about Saddlebred horses.
■ "The Wild-cats or the Wild-kittens," Susan Whitehouse suggested in an email. " ... These young Cats are indeed wild. Hope taming occurs soon."
A self-described "displaced Hoosier," Whitehouse moved to Lexington 26 years ago. She winters in Seabrook Island, S.C., from where she sent the email.
Florida's loss at Arkansas last week made research into unbeaten SEC champions a waste of time.
Other than Kentucky, no SEC school has had a team go through the league schedule unbeaten since Alabama went 14-0 in 1955-56.
Since then, only three teams have won every SEC regular-season game: Kentucky in 1995-96, Kentucky in 2002-03 and Kentucky in 2011-12. Each of those teams went 16-0 in league play.
In terms of dominance, the prize goes to the 1995-96 UK team. That team enjoyed an average margin of victory over SEC opponents of 24.2 points. Only once did that team win by less an 14 points: an 82-77 victory at Georgia.
While no team has ever gone 18-0 in the league, Kentucky won all 19 of its games against SEC opponents in 2002-03. That includes three victories in the SEC Tournament. Current UK staffer Marquis Estill played center on that team of distinction.
Games of weak
For those who suggest that Florida benefited from playing SEC lesser lights in building an 8-0 league record going into last week's games, here's this:
■ The teams the Gators played in building an 8-0 record had a combined SEC winning percentage of .446.
Through eight games, UK's opponents had a combined league winning percentage of .438.
Ryan Harrow ended his Twitter account last summer. But he recently rejoined the world of tweets.
"I don't tweet too much," he said before adding, "I don't tweet at all, actually."
So why did he restart his Twitter account?
"Just to join my teammates," he said. " ... See what they're talking about. See some of the funny stuff that will be there."
Write and wrong
On a recent commentary for National Public Radio, Frank Deford pondered how fans once envied the access to games enjoyed by sportswriters. Because of technology, the writing of typewriting gave way to the tweet/blog/text.
"Today there are no news cycles," Deford said. "News is like the Earth going around the sun, cycling constantly. As a consequence, sportswriters are required to update and blog and react to everything.
"Press box visitors are astonished to see that sportswriters, of all people, do not have time to watch the game, because they have to forever file something or other for the endless cycle. So, now it is the sports fans at home with their gargantuan HDTVs who are the privileged ones watching the games, while sportswriters are the ones not able to.
"Now, that's a fine how-do-you-do, isn't it?"
Former UK standouts Patrick Patterson and John Wall will play host to parties during NBA All-Star weekend next weekend in Houston.
What's being billed as Steel Toes and Stilettos will be held at a club called Phantom on Main Street. Promoters of the parties promised "all the glitz, glamour and excitement that defines All-Star weekend."
Wall and Patterson are among the hosts for the first night of this party on Friday. Other hosts include Carmen Electra, Nick Cannon, Drea Kelly, Jessica Kylie and baseball's Carl Crawford.
Patterson, Cannon, Crawford and Electra return as hosts on Saturday's second night.
Tickets start at $100. More information is at www.SteeltoesAndStilettos.com or by calling (832) 764-3414.
To UK Coach John Calipari. He turns 54 Sunday. .... To Josh Harrellson. He turns 24 Tuesday. ... To Winston Bennett. He turned 48 Saturday. ... To Leroy Byrd. He turns 50 on Monday. ... To Henry Thomas. He turned 42 on Friday.