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Can James Wiseman and Memphis topple the NCAA as we know it? | Giannotto

Commercial Appeal Memphis logo Commercial Appeal Memphis 11/9/2019 Mark Giannotto, Memphis Commercial Appeal

The statement is buried on page 11 of University of Memphis basketball star James Wiseman’s lawsuit against the NCAA. But it cuts to the heart of what’s at stake here, of what Wiseman and the university believe happened.

Of how this case could be about so much more than just a top recruit and a basketball team’s season.  

“Defendant NCAA acted intentionally and with malice in this regard,” item 55 of the complaint reads.  

If Wiseman’s attorneys and Memphis can prove that in court, this lawsuit could become the case that topples the NCAA. If a judge believes what almost every Memphis fan you’ll encounter believes — that the NCAA’s treatment of Wiseman is just the latest example of arbitrary and unjust enforcement of its rules — it could change college sports’ governing body more than any legislation.  

It’s why the NCAA responded the way it did Friday, with a statement announcing that the freshman is likely ineligible and “the university chose to play him and ultimately is responsible for ensuring its student-athletes are eligible to play.” 

JAMES WISEMAN: Prominent sports attorney believes Wiseman 'will play the season'

Memphis, through its support of Wiseman and coach Penny Hardaway, is electing to be the first university to rebel in the growing war against the NCAA that’s largely been relegated to state legislatures and the court of public opinion so far. 

Whereas Ohio State and star football player Chase Young chose to bend the knee and accept the consequences of Young violating an NCAA rule that defies common sense, Memphis chose to throw a right cross.

The punch landed, temporarily, and it’s a punch Memphis and Wiseman likely felt forced to throw because they knew the “fair and equitable resolution” that university president M. David Rudd asked for in his own statement was unlikely to come without legal action. 

If Wiseman is able to force his way onto the court through the courts, it effectively neuters the NCAA eligibility process.

Remember, neither side is arguing that NCAA amateurism rules weren’t broken.    

The NCAA rule book isn’t hard to decipher in this case. 

Once someone makes financial contributions to an athletic department, that person becomes a “representative of the institutions athletics interests,” — or a booster — and “the person retains that identity forever,” according to the NCAA enforcement website. 

Boosters, according to the NCAA, can’t “become directly or indirectly involved in making arrangements for a prospect or the prospect’s relatives or guardian to receive money or financial aid of any kind.”

When Hardaway donated $1 million to the University of Memphis in 2008, he became a booster permanently. Therefore the $11,500 he gave to Wiseman’s mother for moving and relocation expenses in the summer of 2017 became an impermissible benefit.

Does that sound like a reasonable explanation for what actually occurred? Was Hardaway giving Wiseman’s mother $11,500 to steer Wiseman to Memphis nine months before he was hired as the Tigers’ coach? 

Should the NCAA be able to declare a student-athlete eligible — as it did with Wiseman last May — and then subsequently declare him ineligible without any new information, as Wiseman's lawsuit alleges?

Probably not. 

But those are the rules. By joining the NCAA, universities agree to abide by them. 

a close up of a man: University of Memphis President David Rudd on Beale Street as ESPN's "College GameDay" broadcast live from Memphis on Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019. © Max Gersh / The Commercial Appeal University of Memphis President David Rudd on Beale Street as ESPN's "College GameDay" broadcast live from Memphis on Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019.

It’s why this decision by Memphis is so risky. Rudd, in particular, is sticking his neck out here like no other university president, like no other university president before him. 

The NCAA, if it prevails, could impose sanctions and forfeits based on this act of defiance. 

It seems, however, that the university is well aware of these potential consequences. After all, it backed down during the Derrick Rose eligibility case and still had to take down a Final Four banner from 2008. 

It’s the only way to explain why school officials let Wiseman play Friday. 

But even if it doesn’t work out again — and let’s be clear: history suggests the courts will eventually uphold the NCAA’s right to enforce its rule book — Memphis and Wiseman have the chance to land some serious body blows on the NCAA’s credibility as a governing body. 

Especially if this case remains in Shelby County Chancery Court, where the judges are voted into their seats. Would you want to be the judge trying to get re-elected in Memphis who upheld Wiseman's ineligibility?

Already, U.S. Reps. Steve Cohen (D-9th) and David Kustoff (R-8th) have come out in support of Wiseman and called upon the NCAA to reverse its eligibility decision.

Rev. Kenneth T. Whalum Jr. of New Olivet Baptist Church even tweeted a prayer for Wiseman and Hardaway, writing “they are both beautiful spirits, and we know that attracts attacks and spiritual warfare.”

Only Memphis basketball could align God with both major political parties in this city. 

So here’s guessing, at the very least, this litigation gets tied up in the court system so long that Wiseman is long gone to the NBA by the time a final decision is rendered. 

Here’s guessing Memphis ends up vacating some wins over this confrontation, but only after its fan base intentionally and maliciously basks in the glory of winning those games with a 7-foot-1 dunking dynamo shoving the NCAA’s antiquated rules back in its face.

You can reach Commercial Appeal columnist Mark Giannotto via email at mgiannotto@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter: @mgiannotto

This article originally appeared on Memphis Commercial Appeal: Can James Wiseman and Memphis topple the NCAA as we know it? | Giannotto

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