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Commentary: Jay Bilas always a straight shooter

By Mike Jensen The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT) • Updated Jan 16, 2014 at 11:08 PM

When ESPN’s “College GameDay” crew shows up at the Palestra on Saturday, Jay Bilas will speak of the old place from experience.

“I think I was in foul trouble at the warm-ups,” Bilas said of facing La Salle in January of 1983 as a freshman starter for the Duke Blue Devils. “I had to cover Albert ‘Truck’ Butts. I found out pretty quickly that he had that nickname for a reason. He basically ran over me.”

Duke survived the day, beating the Explorers by a point, so Digger Phelps and the other GameDay-ers can’t give Bilas too much of a hard time as they recount their own Palestra memories. (Although if they want to, his line score was 17 minutes, 3 points, 5 rebounds, 0 assists, 4 turnovers, 4 fouls).

Athlon Magazine recently asked a bunch of college basketball media types for their top arenas and Bilas had the nerve to name 10 without including the hallowed Palestra.

“I guess it just doesn’t come to mind,” said Bilas, who also faced St. Joseph’s there as a senior. “I don’t think the Palestra is what it used to be. It’s still a wonderful building. But most of the history ... is history.”

There’s Bilas in a nutshell. He’ll offer his opinion, explain how he came up with it, and if you don’t like it, he won’t lose sleep over that.

Maybe more than any analyst in any sport, Bilas has been willing to honestly critique the governing body of the sport he covers. If the NCAA doesn’t like his critiques ... the man sleeps like a baby.

“As I went along in my career, I kind of decided, I’m saying what I think in regards to every mistake by coaches and players, Bilas said. “I should do the same about the whole thing. Not just mistakes, but issues.”

His major point is that college sports is an industry with revenues now into the billions of dollars “and we’re pretending that it’s high school sports.”

Does he have the fullproof Jay Bilas Plan for handling all issues of amateurism? He does not. Bilas understands there are issues involving Title IX, revenue vs. nonrevenue sports, stars vs. subs, etc. He just thinks everyone should be thinking about these issues, working through them, not whistling past them.

College games “are professional in every way,” including how they are staged, and how his own network covers them, Bilas said. In terms of that staging, “you can’t tell the difference between the BCS title game and the Super Bowl.”

The difference, he said, is only with the competitors. He calls it “absurd nonsense” that it would be impossible to determine the value of athletes when head coaches, strength coaches and the president of the NCAA all have a value attached to their work.

“People buy that ... because we don’t have a solution for every single issue, we don’t even go down that road,” Bilas said.

If Bilas were simply a pundit offering opinions from on-high, he wouldn’t be such a thorn in the NCAA’s side. But he’s a practicing attorney who knows how to do some simple investigating. His best work may have involved the NCAA’s claim that individual athletes aren’t marketed, only the schools they played for.

Bilas tweeted last year that you could type the names of college football stars at ShopNCAAsports.com — type in Manziel, and a No. 2 Texas A&M jersey would pop up. Same for Clowney and a No. 7 South Carolina jersey.

Was it coincidence that this search feature was shut down by the NCAA the very day Bilas tweeted about it? He’s huge on Twitter, with more than 600,000 followers. (How many people does Bilas follow back? ... 0).

On the issue of amateurism, Bilas suggests the natural consequence of trying to come up with equitable solutions isn’t chaos. What would be so horrible about players negotiating deals, including how long they intend to stay on campus?

“We couldn’t have more problems than they do,” Bilas said. “Maybe we’d have less transferring — and maybe even more people would get their education.”

All this won’t necessarily come up on Saturday. GameDay is designed to introduce the games of the day, starting with Temple vs. La Salle at noon that day at the Palestra. He’s been with the show since its inception a decade ago.

As for Bilas leaving the Palestra off his list — it did make Athlon’s consensus top 10 — maybe he at least has a point about most of the big games in this city now being in other buildings.

“Maybe it’s better than I think,” Bilas said, explaining that he didn’t do a lot of hard thinking on the subject. “It’s just my list.”

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