James Wiseman is now a professional athlete. The former University of Memphis Tigers freshman, who had been suspended by the NCAA for allegedly accepting $11,500 in moving expenses from Memphis head coach Penny Hardaway while Wiseman was in high school and Hardaway was a high school basketball coach, announced on Friday that he had withdrawn from the university. The Athletic's Shams Charania reports that Wiseman has signed with an agent. The signing renders Wiseman ineligible to play in NCAA games.
Wiseman’s short stay at Memphis attracted a considerable amount of attention from NCAA enforcement officers and attorneys hired by Wiseman and the NCAA.
The Wiseman-NCAA battle formally began on Nov. 8 when his attorneys sought and obtained a temporary restraining order from a judge in Shelby County (Tennessee). The order effectively blocked the NCAA from suspending Wiseman. Although the NCAA had not yet suspended Wiseman, the non-profit organization expressed that it would likely do so.
The pending suspension primarily concerned events that had occurred in 2017. At the time, Hardaway was a coach at Memphis East High School. He allegedly paid $11,500 in expenses for Wiseman and his family to move from Nashville to Memphis. Several months later, the University of Memphis hired Hardaway and later signed Wiseman as a top recruit.
The NCAA objected to the payment of expenses not because Hardaway would be hired by Memphis months later, but because the NCAA classified Hardaway as a representative of Memphis’s athletic interests (also known as a “booster”). Hardaway, the third overall pick in the 1993 NBA draft, is a legendary alumnus of the university and its basketball program. Boosters include persons who promote a school’s athletic program. Under NCAA rules, boosters are generally forbidden from conferring money or items of value to a university’s student-athletes or its recruits.
About a week after obtaining a temporary restraining order, attorneys for Wiseman negotiated a resolution of sorts with the NCAA. Wiseman withdrew his litigation and accepted the NCAA’s authority to suspend him. The NCAA suspended Wiseman 12 games, a suspension the NCAA upheld on Wiseman’s appeal. The suspension would have expired on January 12, meaning the 11th-ranked Tigers planned on Wiseman playing in postseason tournaments.
More controversially, the NCAA also required that Wiseman “donate” $11,500 to a charity. Obviously, a “required donation” is tantamount to a fine—a curious punishment for a player who, as an amateur, can’t be paid. NCAA rules also do not contemplate player fines.
Wiseman finishes his collegiate career having played in three games. The 7’1, 240-pound center averaged 19.7 points and 10.7 rebounds in those games. Wiseman is widely expected to be selected among the top three picks in the 2020 NBA draft.
The Wiseman saga will continue to play on in at least five ways:
1) Wiseman can now sign lucrative endorsement deals and profit from the use of his name, image and likeness. If it hasn’t already happened, it won’t take long for representatives of major sneaker, apparel, food, beverage and video game companies to contact Wiseman’s agent and present offers.
A player projected to be a top three pick in the NBA draft can expect multi-million-dollar endorsement offers from companies in those and other industries.
The days of worrying about NCAA eligibility are officially over for Wiseman. He’s now a pro and can become a very wealthy 18-year-old in a matter of days.
2) The timing of Wiseman’s announcement is really bad for the NCAA. While the NCAA fends off legal and policy attacks on its system of amateurism, Wiseman just highlighted the power of players to render the NCAA irrelevant.
Consider the context of Wiseman’s decision. California Governor Gavin Newsom recently signed the Fair Pay to Play Act, which beginning in 2023 will make it illegal for California colleges to deny college athletes opportunities to hire agents and license their names, images and likenesses. Other states are exploring similar legislation. NCAA president Mark Emmert was in D.C. earlier this week hoping for members of Congress to propose an NCAA-friendly bill on name, image and likeness while offering an ambiguous message at an Aspen Institute forum.
Meanwhile, the G League is paying players more and giving them greater publicity, and NBA players are helping G Leaguers unionize. Watching it all unfold are LaMelo Ball and R.J. Hampton, two 18-year-old American basketball stars who are getting paid to play in Australia’s National Basketball League while preparing for the 2020 NBA draft.
It would not be surprising to see elite high school basketball stars increasingly turn away from playing in college. Even without eligibility to enter the NBA out of high school, they can, as 18-year-olds, play professionally, get on TV, make good wages and sign endorsement deals. They also just saw the NCAA impose a five-figure fine—ahem, required donation—on Wiseman, whom NCAA amateurism rules forbid from being paid for his highly marketable basketball talents and identity.
This is a not a good fact pattern for the NCAA.
3) Will Wiseman ever make the “required donation”? It’s not clear if Wiseman or his family have complied with the NCAA punishment that he “donate” $11,500 as a condition to him returning to play.
If he hasn’t paid the amount and refuses to do so, the NCAA might experience difficulty enforcing this supposed obligation. The NCAA claimed in writing that Wiseman “must donate $11,500 to a charity of his choice.” This was strange wording. A donation is a voluntary act. Merriam-Webster defines a donation as “the making of a gift.” We are not legally obligated to make gifts.
Unless Wiseman has contractually agreed to make the donation, it is probably not one that the NCAA can legally enforce. The NCAA no longer has any leverage over Wiseman. He’s a pro.
4) Will Wiseman return to school? As a basketball player, the answer to this question is clearly “no.” As a student, we’ll see. A number of NBA players and other pro athletes have pursued studies and completed college degrees during the offseason. With more and more schools offering online courses, starting or returning to college are much more feasible.
The larger point: college is not a “one shot” deal. A player who leaves school and turns pro hasn’t foreclosed the chance to return there, or at another university, as a student. He or she wouldn’t receive an athletic scholarship, but they might have earned enough money to pay tuition or they might receive other kinds of scholarships and aid.
5) Will Hardaway or Memphis be punished? While Wiseman is now beyond the long reach of the NCAA, the same can’t be said of Hardaway or the University of Memphis. As detailed by Sports Illustrated’s Pat Forde, the NCAA could punish both for violations related to moving expenses. Hardaway, for example, could be suspended given his role in the controversy.
The NCAA might also punish Memphis for playing Wiseman against Illinois-Chicago on Nov. 8 and Oregon on Nov. 12 while he faced a pending punishment.
To that point, the NCAA previously warned Memphis that the school “ultimately is responsible for ensuring its student-athletes are eligible to play." The NCAA also has the power of the Restitution Rule. Under this rule, the NCAA can compel a school to share television receipts for games played by a player whom the NCAA declares ineligible but who defied the NCAA by playing through a court injunction that is later vacated.
Here, as part of a settlement with the NCAA, Wiseman petitioned for the judge to dismiss the lawsuit and thus vacate the injunction. Also, the NCAA had not yet suspended Wiseman. Under those circumstances, the NCAA would probably decline to pursue a penalty under the Restitution Rule. We’ll see.
Michael McCann is SI’s Legal Analyst. He is also an attorney and Director of the Sports and Entertainment Law Institute at the University of New Hampshire Franklin Pierce School of Law.