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Memphis Skates in NCAA Probe Despite Obstructing the Investigation

Penny Hardaway and his program avoided any major penalties, showcasing the inadequacies and incompetence of the NCAA’s review process.

The Zoom call to discuss the Memphis men’s basketball infractions case flickered to life at 11:09 a.m. ET, nine minutes late. It was extremely on-brand that the worst NCAA body ever designed was behind schedule.

The Independent Accountability Resolution Process, the New Coke of college athletics’ bright ideas, had finally reached a ruling on a case that came to light in November 2019 and was handed to it in March ’20. It involved star recruit James Wiseman, who is now starting his third season in the NBA and won a championship ring with the Warriors last June. That’s how old this case was (though it’s still younger than others wallowing in IARP purgatory).

The case also involved current coach Penny Hardaway, who had a very tangible stake in this ruling. As did his program. The initial Notice of Allegations was serious: Four Level I violations were said to have occurred. There could have been lengthy suspensions, even a postseason ban. The stakes were high.

In the end, Memphis and its lawyers ran a dunk line on the IARP. The violations were reduced in severity, and the sanctions were virtually nonexistent. This was a rout that showcased the inadequacies and incompetence of this new crime-and-punishment process, and also vividly displayed why it is being disbanded in ignominy sometime in 2023.

The case started with this: Hardaway’s payments to the Wiseman family to help cover moving expenses, before Hardaway was the coach of the Tigers. Ultimately, the Independent Resolution Panel (the IRP of the IARP, more initials, please) ruled Hardaway’s financial benefits to the family and other recruits were not a violation. As the ruling states, the former NBA star had a “long-standing philanthropic commitment, particularly to youth in the economically disadvantaged Memphis community. … The hearing panel determined that the benefits provided by the head coach were generally available to all prospective students of Memphis, not only student-athletes.”

Thus Hardaway was spared any punishment. And so was the school, aside from a pocket-change fine and a toothless probation. That’s despite IRP chair Hugh Fraser declaring there were “significant failures by the institution” and “failures within the institution’s leadership.”

Among them: failure to cooperate with the NCAA’s initial investigation, destroying evidence, and failure to turn over documents in a timely and useful fashion. Memphis certainly comported itself like a university with something to hide, and skated clean.

The “significant failures” resulted in no significant penalties. Memphis told the investigators to shove it, and won. Perhaps not even North Carolina’s great escape from academic fraud charges in 2017 is as remarkable as this case in terms of laying bare the futility of college athletics’ rules enforcement.

Nobody cares whether Hardaway paid the Wiseman’s $11,500 in moving expenses or other payments that went to other recruits. But what should matter is the integrity of the investigative process, and it was there that Memphis skated despite several obstructionist actions.

Start with this tall tale: Memphis asserted Hardaway didn’t know Wiseman had been ruled ineligible before he played in his first game for the Tigers, on Nov. 5, 2019. He had 28 points and 11 rebounds in 22 minutes against South Carolina State, and it was only after the game that someone got around to informing the head coach that he shouldn’t have played his best player. And the hearing panel bought it.

“In the 24 to 72 hours before that, a lot of things were going on at a different level that wouldn’t necessarily involve the head coach,” Fraser said, in response to my question.

If the star player’s eligibility is in question—as Wiseman’s had been for months—it seems likely that the head coach would be involved at every level. Coaches know who their players date, where they live and what they eat for breakfast. Whether they can play would not be something a coach blows off—or something that administrators forget to relay, especially after receiving bad news. Score one for Memphis there, and for a new level of gullibility from the hearing panel.

Then there was this, the most significant aspect of the case, in terms of Memphis’s culpability: The former assistant coach whose computer had its hard drive wiped the day after the school was told to preserve all records. The reformatting of the computer happened on June 5, 2020, and in September investigators inquired with Memphis outside counsel about what exactly was going on there.

The response was that nobody in Memphis athletics or the university IT departments reformatted the computer. And that was it. Pound sand, investigators.

The IRP ruling tut-tutted Memphis on that one.

“Memphis’s answers were completely unresponsive to the Complex Case Unit’s inquiries,” the ruling stated. “They demonstrate that the institution failed to do any investigation to determine how or why the data had been destroyed. Memphis failed to conduct an adequate investigation into who had reformatted the computer and why its hard drive was not preserved.

“Memphis failed to interview anyone with access to former assistant coach No. 1’s computer. Memphis had an affirmative obligation to investigate the chain of custody, including interviewing any institutional employee, including graduate assistants, who had access to the computer.”

And yet … no penalties. Score another one for obfuscation and obstruction.

Memphis also dragged its feet for months in producing phone texts and then failed to deliver everything that was asked. That highlights one underappreciated truth about these investigations—it’s often the accused party that causes the longest delays, not the NCAA/IARP. In this case, the ruling states those delays hampered follow-up inquiries. Darn the luck, and score yet another one for the school.

Lastly, there was the curious case of the missing phones when investigators interviewed Memphis players. From the report: “While the Complex Case Unit was awaiting the production of text message communications between men’s basketball student-athletes and members of Memphis’s men’s basketball staff, all but one of the men’s basketball student-athletes that were interviewed by the Complex Case Unit failed to bring their cell phones with them to the interviews, thereby preventing the Complex Case Unit’s access to relevant sources of information. After the interviews, the Complex Case Unit requested Memphis to investigate whether any representative of Memphis instructed the student-athletes not to bring their cell phones to the interviews. Memphis refused to investigate this issue. As such, Memphis refused to cooperate and potentially actively obstructed the investigation.”

How many college students go anywhere without their phones? When a group of them all do it at the same time, makes you wonder, doesn’t it?

But, also noted in the report, the investigators failed to even ask the players themselves whether they were told to leave their phones behind when they came into the interviews. Seems like a logical question, yet it wasn’t brought up. This hits at one of the biggest problems with the failed IARP: It sent smart people in to do the NCAA’s job, but it wasn’t fully conversant on NCAA protocol and tactics. The IARP has been doing on-the-job training with massive high-profile cases, rife with duplicated effort and long learning curves that only further delayed an onerous process.

In the final analysis, the IRP opted not to assess punishments that impacted current athletes who were not involved when the violations were committed. That makes sense, but in the absence of that unfair penalty it seems clear Memphis was unfairly rewarded on the opposite end of the spectrum. Failure to find a satisfying middle ground in terms of sanctions is an NCAA problem that long predates the disastrous IARP.

As for that doomed organization, it has four remaining cases to settle before it is shuttered, and they’re all whoppers: Louisville (which should come soon), Kansas, Arizona and LSU. Those schools all are charged with serious violations, but may harbor some new hope that the IARP has no appetite for postseason bans that could easily have been in play as recently as, say, last year.

It’s worth noting that Monday was the fifth anniversary of the FBI investigation that rocked college basketball and set off the above investigations. All these years later, there isn’t much to show that the NCAA or its IARP experiment can fairly or efficiently get to the bottom of any of it.

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