The complex legal battle between James Wiseman and the NCAA drew to a close last week when the projected #1 overall pick withdrew his lawsuit, however the central dispute, that of Wiseman’s playing eligibility, remains at large. The withdrawal has come on the hopes that the freshman center will be reinstated to #13 ranked Memphis shortly by the NCAA.
The lawsuit stems from 2017 when Memphis coach Penny Hardaway was still the coach of Memphis East High School and sought to recruit Wiseman, at that time a high school junior. Wiseman and his mother had been living in Nashville and to ease the burden of relocating to Memphis, Hardaway provided $11,500 in moving expenses. However Hardaway, a University of Memphis alum himself, donated $1 million in 2008 as a booster, so his assistance to the Wiseman family was deemed as an “impermissible benefit” given his current status as the coach of Memphis and in turn, James Wiseman. According to NCAA rules, boosters are not permitted, “to provide gifts or reduced-cost services to a prospect,” so the violation rendered Wiseman ineligible. However, much of what has caused the controversy is the indecisive nature of the NCAA’s judgments in what has been a case without much precedent.
The NCAA initially ruled the no. 1 high school recruit eligible in late May, however two weeks into the season, said Wiseman was “likely ineligible” due to Hardaway’s payment to the family. Accordingly, the 7’1″ center hired lawyers from Ballin, Ballin & Fishman and Farese, Farese & Farese to gear up for the legal battle over his eligibility. Wiseman then received a temporary restraining order against the NCAA and while Memphis decided to play the freshman for two games, this exemption was short-lived as Memphis observed the NCAA’s stance on Wiseman’s eligibility and ruled him ineligible.
Since, Wiseman’s legal team has dropped his lawsuit, though it remains hopeful that the University of Memphis and the NCAA will reach an agreement expeditiously. Although Wiseman himself is not able to comment on the situation, the two firms released a statement in which they expressed the hindrance the lawsuit represented in reaching a resolution. While it seems that the two sides have a clear, vested interest in Wiseman’s reinstatement — Memphis wanting its no. 1 prospect back, and the NCAA wanting viewership for the projected #1 overall NBA pick — it appears as though the 18 year-old talent will receive a multi-game suspension.
There has never been a case in which a booster has given a high school prospect an “impermissible benefit” and has later become the coach of said prospect. The closest comparison to Wiseman’s dilemma is that of former BYU basketball player, Nick Emery. Emery accepted $12,000 from a booster and subsequently received a nine game suspension for the violation. Early reports indicate that Wiseman figures to receive a similar punishment once Memphis and the NCAA reach an agreement. If the NCAA issues the same nine-game suspension that Emery received, Wiseman would be eligible for reinstatement after December 21st, assuming the NCAA counts the two games that Memphis already. However, I would imagine that the suspension will end up being a bit shorter due to Wiseman’s celebrity and the complexity of the initial violation.
Now that the lawsuit has been dropped, Memphis and the NCAA can negotiate the resolution of the freshman’s eligibility. Given the excitement around Wiseman and Memphis’ potential this season, it is hard to see the league’s vision in handing down a heavy suspension on the university’s prized prospect. In fact, I believe any severe penalty enforced in this case ought to be directed toward the university and/or Coach Hardaway himself given the culpability they might have been expected to anticipate due to the circumstances around his hiring. The commercial impact of prior #1 overall projected picks is undeniable, just look at ticket prices for Zion Williamson’s Duke games from a season ago. Yes, the NCAA aims to establish a precedent and make an example out of future high school coach-top prospect duos in the future, but more than anything, should want the publicity and profit that accompanies the best talents in college basketball. It is reasonable to expect an official ruling on Wiseman’s eligibility in the coming days from the NCAA and if the organization is looking out for itself and its fans, then Wiseman should hope to back on the court before the December 21 timetable.
Update (11/20): The NCAA has decided to suspend Wiseman for 12 games (11 additional after the one that he already sat out) and he will be eligible to return on January 12 against South Florida. Moreover, the NCAA has stated that Wiseman must donate $11,500, the original amount given to him as moving expenses, to a charity of his choice.