Calkins: Memphis declares war on the NCAA

Hurrah for “Memphis State College” from which I earned my B.S. Degree, for “Memphis State University” where I taught for three years, for the “University of Memphis”, AND for Memphis itself where I myself began growing up (circa 1958). 


By Daily Memphian 

Just after 6 p.m. Friday, Memphis center James Wiseman walked out to take the tip against the University of Illinois at Chicago.

He did it over the objection of the NCAA. He did it with the full backing of his teammates, his coach and his university.

They all understood the risks inherent in the decision to play Wiseman. They all wanted him to play anyway.

If the NCAA wipes away Memphis’s season somewhere down the road, so be it. This time, it won’t happen without a fight.

That’s what 15,923 Memphis fans witnessed at FedExForum Friday night. The start of a legal brawl.

It was stunning, at some level. Crazy, possibly. Schools just don’t go ahead and play athletes who have been ruled ineligible, if only because the NCAA can declare the games to be forfeits in the end. But that’s exactly what Memphis did.

Why?

Because Memphis had been working with the NCAA for nearly seven months and only got word that Wiseman was “possibly” ineligible late Tuesday afternoon.

Why?

Because the NCAA already had all pertinent information when it originally certified Wiseman to be eligible, back in May.

Why?

Because the NCAA later informed Memphis that this certification was released “inadvertently” but said that “per its error policy it would honor the released certification.”

Why?

Because according to university attorneys, the basis of the NCAA’s ruling is that Hardaway became a “booster” when he donated $1 million to the university in 2008.

“In 2008, James Wiseman was seven or eight years old,” said Leslie Ballin, Wiseman’s attorney. “What does that generous donation have to do with Wiseman? Then, in 2017, when Penny was at East High School, he helped the Wiseman family financially. At the time, Tubby Smith was the coach at the University of Memphis. Wiseman wasn’t even considering going to Memphis at that time. It wasn’t even on his radar. But the NCAA says that because of the donation in 2008, Penny was a booster and gave an impermissible benefit to a student-athlete in 2017. It’s an archaic rule and it’s a shame.”

That’s the essence of the university’s argument. There are some holes. Among them: Even if Hardaway wasn’t a booster, he freely admits that he gave Wiseman’s family $11,500 to help them move from Nashville to Memphis in 2017. Hardaway had no reason beyond basketball to help the family. That’s the definition of an impermissible benefit according to NCAA rules.

In response, the university will argue that Hardaway has given money to all sorts of people, in all sorts of situations. He’s a community philanthropist. North Carolina got away with massive academic fraud on the theory that fraudulent courses were available to students other than athletes. Hardaway is prepared to show he has helped thousands of kids over the years.

At least, that’s the strategy. You can buy it or not. But do not think that the school is going to go quietly because — beyond everything else — Memphis is convinced it is subjected to a different standard than other schools.

It goes back to the Derrick Rose case, when the NCAA stripped Memphis of a Final Four appearance even though the NCAA never proved — or even alleged — that Memphis did anything wrong. Remember, the NCAA ruled that Rose was eligible before the season began. So Memphis played Rose. Why would it not? But the NCAA nevertheless came back and stripped away the Final Four appearance on the theory of “strict liability.”

Some Memphis officials have long believed the school should have fought that case hard instead of capitulating. It’s entirely possible that the administration’s approach to the current dispute is shaped by its determination not to go belly up again.

“My sense is that the University of Memphis and coach Penny Hardaway have been treated differently than others throughout the country,” Ballin said. “Are we a red-headed stepchild university? Is this coach not in the mold of other types of coach? He comes from a financially challenged background, he excels in school and the NBA, he’s an African-American, he takes on the establishment, and now they’re picking on him.”

Ballin said there’s already a hearing scheduled for Nov. 18, at which he’ll ask for a temporary injunction. That may allow Wiseman to continue to play. It won’t insulate Memphis from NCAA sanctions if the school ultimately loses the case, but Memphis appears to be willing to take this as far as the NCAA wishes to go. 

It’s a risky strategy, certainly. The NCAA has a way of punishing those who don’t cooperate. You saw what happened when Ole Miss and Hugh Freeze tried to get tough. That could happen to Memphis and Hardaway, too.

But this is an entirely different time in college sports. The NCAA is seen as increasingly out of touch. The best college football player in America (Ohio State’s Chase Young) will be sitting out this week because of NCAA eligibility issues. Fans just want to see the best players play. So what if Hardaway gave money to his alma mater 11 years ago? So what if he helped the Wiseman family move before he had any inkling he would be the Memphis coach? NCAA president Mark Emmert got nearly $4 million in compensation in 2017. The NCAA is largely funded by proceeds generated by the young, African-American men — men like James Wiseman — who play in the NCAA basketball tournament.

Maybe that shifting backdrop will make a difference in this case. Maybe it won’t. But for now, you should know that Wiseman is playing basketball. And Memphis isn’t playing around. 

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