MEMPHIS, Tenn. — In the months leading up toin relation to its IARP case that was triggered by the school’s decision in 2019 to play five-star freshman James Wiseman in defiance of the NCAA, the consensus was that anything short of a postseason ban should be considered a win.
So, needless to say, they are celebrating in Penny Hardaway’s office as the Tigers got a favorable outcome.
The only real punishments — and feel free to roll your eyes at “real punishments” — are three years probation and a $5,000 fine. No postseason ban. No suspension for Hardaway. No scholarship reductions. Practically speaking, things could not have turned out better for a Memphis program that was initially charged with four Level I violations but ultimately convicted of zero.
“We have finally arrived at the end of an extremely challenging period, and I could not be more grateful,” Hardaway said. “I would like to thank our players and their families, as well as our coaches and our support staff, for continuing to focus on what we could control as this process lingered. Believe me, none of this was easy, but this group always had faith. … Our university and athletic department leadership worked tirelessly to help present the facts of our case. I am thankful to the IARP for allowing us to present those facts and making its decision based on the facts. It’s now time to put all of this behind us.”
Although the cases are related to different infractions, it appears Memphis more or less beat the NCAA with a similar defense to the one North Carolina used to beat the NCAA five years ago. In that case, you might remember UNC successfully argued that because the fraudulent classes some athletes took to maintain their eligibility were also available to non-athletes, they could not be in violation of any NCAA rule because athletes and non-athletes alike both benefitted from said. In this case, Memphis successfully argued that because Hardaway has been philanthropic for decades, and financially assisted basketball players and non-basketball players alike, the $11,500 he admittedly gave to Wiseman’s family to cover “moving expenses” from Nashville to Memphis (before ever even becoming the Memphis coach) should not be in violation of any NCAA rule.
Hats off to the lawyers.
“The history of the coach being involved with philanthropic activities was significant,” said Hugh Fraser, an arbitrator who served as the case’s lead panel member. “That history, his philanthropy was so extensive, he was providing benefits that were generally available to the wider community.”
Fraser went on to explain that even though Wiseman had eligibility issues before the 2019-20 season-opener, it is his panel’s belief that Hardaway initially played the eventual No. 2 pick of the 2020 NBA Draft with no knowledge of this fact. Understandably, some media members on Tuesday’s Zoom call were skeptical. The Athletic’s Dana O’Neil asked Fraser if it “stretched the imagination” to believe Hardaway could really be in the dark about the eligibility status of his prized recruit. Fraser responded, in part, by saying that, broadly speaking, “coaches don’t get too deep into the eligibility issues.”
That’s obviously a ridiculous statement.
The truth is that coaches are often wow deep into the eligibility issues of their prized recruits, which is why it’s hard for most who understand the inner-workings of the sport to buy that Hardaway was truly in the dark about the status of Wiseman’s eligibility. If so, that’s a real failure on the administration’s part.
For the purposes of this column, I’ll take everyone at their word. But it should be noted that Hardaway was asked countless times in November 2019 why he chose to play Wiseman in defiance of the NCAA. Never once, at that time, did he say anything that suggested he was unaware Wiseman had eligibility issues before he placed the 7-foot-1 center into the starting lineup against South Carolina State.
But I digress…
Again, hats off to the lawyers. They’re the real stars of this thing.
Listen below and subscribe to the Eye on College Basketball podcast where Gary Parrish and Matt Norlander break down Memphis’ favorable ruling on Tuesday.
Some have already started to argue that this favorable outcome is a vindication for the Memphis administration that allowed Wiseman to play in defiance of the NCAA before ruling him ineligible and seeking reinstatement.
Let me address that with three words: No, it’s not.
Regardless of how this turned out, it was still nonsensical for Memphis to play Wiseman before his eligibility issues were resolved because doing so literally triggered a major infractions case that A) put a cloud over the program and head coach for nearly three years, B) cost god knows how much money and energy to fight and C) resulted in probation that could still cause problems down the road. Defending the Memphis administration’s decision to play Wiseman in defiance of the NCAA now that the punishment is lighter than most anticipated is akin to defending a drunk driver after his attorney gets the charge dismissed on what amounts to technicalities. Congratulations on beating the drunk-driving charge, but it was still nonsensical to get behind the wheel of a car under those circumstances. Similarly, congratulations on avoiding a postseason ban, but it was still nonsensical to put Wiseman on the court under those circumstances.
That’ll never be true.
But, and this is the most important thing to remember, it really doesn’t matter anymore because, for the most part in life, all’s well that ends well — and this has ended remarkably well for Memphis. Undeniably, It’s been a long three years for Hardaway, who has had to recruit with this hanging over his program, and for Memphis fans who have had to worry about whether a postseason ban would someday prevent the Tigers from playing in the NCAA Tournament. It’s been stressful and unnerving. Folks seemed braced for the worst, but on Tuesday, the best news Memphis could have reasonably hoped for was delivered.
The James Wiseman case is now officially in the past.
The punishment is basically nothing.
The future is unbothered.