It has been nearly four months since Villanova’s Kris Jenkins drained a three-point buzzer-beater to down North Carolina in the national championship game, and with almost another four until the 2016-17 season gets underway, the most boring period of the college basketball news cycle is officially upon us.
For the past week, the relationship between Grammy Award-winning rapper Drake and the Kentucky Wildcats has been the biggest story in the sport.
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Drake’s passion for the Wildcats is well documented. In 2014, he surprised the team in the locker room with a congratulatory speech after defeating Wisconsin to advance to the national title game. Drake would also take part in that year’s Big Blue Madness event, kicking off the 2014-15 season. The event would mark the first of several controversial encounters between the two parties.
According to a 2015 report by Sporting News, the university sent the famous rapper a cease-and-desist letter after this 2014 appearance. The university had reportedly requested that he not make contact with any potential student-athletes in order to avoid NCAA violations, yet an image surfaced on social media of him posing with a recruit. Thus, Kentucky “issued a cease-and-desist letter to (Drake) directing him to refrain from conversations with prospects or taking photos with prospects when that conversation or photo occurs outside the parameters established by the NCAA.”
Nothing significant emerged from this instance. The prospect in question, shooting guard Charles Matthews, was already committed to the Wildcats, and the transgression itself was only a Level III (non-suspension) violation. More than anything, the university was being proactive in its attempts to shut down any potential scandals. But in 2016, the relationship between the rapper and his favorite college basketball team would come under scrutiny once again.
Last week, a report by SEC Country unveiled that, according to documents obtained through an open-records request, the Kentucky athletic department was issued either penalties or letters of admonishment for 14 secondary NCAA violations. Among the transgressions was another Level III violation for the men’s basketball team stemming from an encounter with Drake.
Point guard Tyler Ulis was momentarily suspended last fall after posting an image to Instagram of him alongside Drake at an after-party following the rapper’s May 29, 2015 concert in Ulis’ hometown of Chicago. Drake did not provide Ulis access to the concert or after-party, he was merely recognized by a member of the rapper’s management group and invited back to say hello. Regardless, such is deemed “preferential treatment” by the NCAA.
Nothing major will likely arise from the relationship between Drake and the Kentucky basketball program, but in the moment, the Wildcats would be wise to cut ties with their wildly-popular superfan.
Rappers and collegiate athletics is a mix that rarely works, at least within the legality of NCAA regulations. Just ask the Miami football program about its relationship with Luther Campbell of the 2 Live Crew.
Drake himself is not the problem, and his intentions are not malicous. But the relationship must be treated like that of deep-pocketed booster; a university does not want to enable an environment that could lead to impermissible benefits – or even create the allusion that potential violations may be taking place.
The real issue at hand, though, is the ridiculous and inconsistent nature of NCAA violations as a whole.
Preventing a team from enabling a celebrity to interact with a prospective student-athlete on campus is a reasonable measure. It creates a blatant and unfair recruiting advantage, with the possibility of directly influencing a recruit’s decision on whether or not to attend a school.
But to hand down admonishment for a current player interacting with a fan — regardless of fame — at an event they attended by their own means, hundreds of miles away, is plain foolish.
As one of the most prestigous programs in the history of college basketball with a head coach in John Calipari that has left his previous two coaching stops while facing considerable sanctions, the NCAA spotlight in Lexington, Ky. is as bright as anywhere in the country.
It may seem over-the-top, but until the NCAA begins to favor common sense over absurdity, Kentucky would be best served to distance itself from perhaps the program’s most recognizable fan.