Memphis' 'high risk' move with top prospect James Wiseman shows times have changed

In one of the riskiest and most compelling decisions in the recent history of college athletes, the University of Memphis on Friday night decided to ignore the advice of the NCAA and play star forward James Wiseman against Illinois-Chicago.

After Wiseman was ruled ineligible by the NCAA, he sought and received an injunction by a local judge to put the NCAA’s eligibility decision on hold. He showed up at the arena less than an hour before tipoff after the injunction was granted and scored 17 points in Memphis’ 92-46 victory. While court injunctions for NCAA eligibility aren’t unprecedented, there’s been no case in the history of college athletics with the stakes, spotlight and player of his magnitude.

Wiseman is the potential No. 1 pick in the upcoming NBA draft. And Memphis’ decision to play him after the NCAA ruled him ineligible is bold, slightly crazy and potentially transformative. It’s the latest sign in an era where schools are standing on their tallest campus building and lifting their middle fingers toward NCAA rules and then soaking in the populist cheers that accompany it. We’ve seen this in the aftermath of the federal basketball cases with schools like Kansas, Arizona, Auburn and LSU. Why remove a popular and successful coach when you can leave it up to a historically ineffective institution to do it for you (if it does it at all)?

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The message from the schools is loud and clear: Hey NCAA, come and get us. With college sports at a tipping point, Memphis has made the boldest statement so far, showing it’s not afraid to fall over the edge.

After the NCAA ruled that Wiseman couldn’t play, Wiseman got an injunction and Memphis played him. The school fired up the rhetoric to support Wiseman with the school president David Rudd asking for “a fair and equitable resolution.”

The reality is that most folks around college athletics thought what Memphis did on Friday night was bonkers. It played out to cheers among Twitter and Memphis fans roared with approval. But did they really need Wiseman in a game they led 47-16 at halftime?

Memphis' James Wiseman comes down court during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Illinois-Chicago Friday, Nov. 8, 2019, in Memphis, Tenn. (AP)
Memphis' James Wiseman comes down court during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Illinois-Chicago Friday, Nov. 8, 2019, in Memphis, Tenn. (AP)

“This is high risk and potentially high reward,” said Stu Brown, an independent lawyer who is an expert in NCAA issues. “But think about it from Memphis’ side. It’s a tremendous reward if he’s eligible when you are recruiting these high-profile kids. They’re saying, ‘We’ll stand up for you if you’re going to fight the NCAA.’”

The facts of the case that emerged are complicated. And that doesn’t include myriad potential dynamics that have yet to be revealed. As with all NCAA cases, there’s so much more that hasn’t been made public.

Memphis released a compelling narrative about Wiseman, who moved from Nashville to Memphis as a high school student in 2017. To cover moving expenses, his family received $11,500 from Penny Hardaway. At the time, Hardaway, now the head coach at the University of Memphis, was coaching high school and AAU locally, but he classified as a booster for the school because of a $1 million donation to his alma mater.

The gripe raised by Wiseman’s attorney on Friday, according to the Commercial Appeal, was that the NCAA had already ruled Wiseman eligible in May knowing about that $11,500. (A whole other factor here is that potential litigation opens up Memphis coaches and players to depositions or testifying under oath, which could also be potentially risky.)

The NCAA’s response was actually somewhat insightful, even by their covert standards. The NCAA’s eligibility and enforcement arms are branded as the bad cops, but they pride themselves on cooperating with schools to give them the best information whether or not to play players for varying issues. The NCAA made it clear that they warned Memphis by saying in a statement: “The University of Memphis was notified that James Wiseman is likely ineligible. The university chose to play him, and ultimately is responsible for ensuring its student-athletes are eligible to play.”

What would the repercussions be? Check out the potential penalties below, and it’s curious that Memphis would take a risk to play Wiseman against lowly UIC for penalties that range from forfeited games to potentially having to sit out the postseason. The tough question for Rudd here is why you’d risk the postseason for the rest of your current players if Wiseman is, indeed, deemed ineligible.

“If you play a kid under a temporary injunction, and it’s later found to not be permanent, these are the risks you run institutionally,” Brown said.

Memphis’ moves here again show what little regard NCAA member schools have for actual NCAA rules. It’s the great paradox of modern athletics that portends change, as big schools, big stars and bold university presidents like Rudd are revolting against NCAA convention.

As college athletics have become a billion-dollar entertainment industry, the NCAA rules have become so antiquated and unpopular that the Memphis news was greeted on social media with cheers of revolutionary fervor. (Around college athletics, words like “insane,” “risky” and “crazy” were used to describe Rudd and AD Laird Veatch’s support.)  

The Wiseman news came on the heels of a busy day in the conflicts of amateurism. Early Friday, news broke that Ohio State is holding out Heisman Trophy candidate and potential No. 1 NFL draft pick Chase Young for its game against Maryland this weekend. Young later revealed that his absence is tied to “an NCAA eligibility issue.” The issues aren’t closely tied, as Memphis is playing Wiseman despite the advice of the NCAA and Ohio State appears to be following the NCAA’s advice to hold out Young.

But it’s still striking that arguably the two biggest names in the NCAA’s two biggest sports end up ensnared in NCAA eligibility issues on the same day. Wiseman and Young are the caliber of players – the top one percent of the one percent – that could have commanded money from their name, image and likeness to avoid these amateurism situations. But the NCAA is at least a decade late in figuring out a way to parse the money to those whose performance and name command it.

While these are the rules they signed up for, we’re on the cusp of significant change with state laws and upcoming NLI legislation.

Maybe Wiseman’s day in court and Memphis’ decision to play him are remembered as bold moves in the fight for athletes’ rights. There could be oral histories, documentaries and 30-for-30s about it. Maybe the NCAA hammers Memphis for being short-sighted enough to risk the future of the program to play Wiseman against UIC. Regardless, the drama of it all felt like an important chapter as we build toward a necessary evolution in college athletics.

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