You knew it was bound to happen. Here in Memphis, we just can't have nice things. Riding the high from a Tigers football victory over previously unbeaten SMU and an impressive debut on ESPN's College GameDay straight into a new basketball season filled with high, yet totally reasonable expectations, things were looking up for the ole Blue and Gray.
Until Friday, when my ride Downtown to FedExForum was disrupted by news that the NCAA had once again changed its mind about something.
On one side, you have a mother who wanted to be close to both her kids. You have an NBA legend who came from nothing, happy to spend his "retirement" elevating youth the way he elevated himself. You have a boy — seven feet tall, but still a boy — born with a preternatural gift, who needed the protection of someone who has walked in those same huge sneakers. On the other side, you have an institution willing to throw two generations of college sports superstars under the bus to prove — well, I'm not sure what the NCAA aims to prove with this, exactly. All over two acts of generosity: one to a university, another to a family.
- Larry Kuzniewski
- James Wiseman
Eleven years ago, Anfernee "Penny" Hardaway, who began his Memphis State career academically ineligible and finished it an All-American with an Elite Eight and the first triple-double in program history, who became a perennial NBA All-Star and the face of an iconic Nike line — donated $1 million to the University of Memphis. It was an incredible act of charity at a critical time for the university. As you may recall, 2008 was not a great year, economy-wise.
This largesse is the sort of thing the NCAA should be hailing as a success story. However, that donation, in their twisted view, "indefinitely" qualified Penny as a "booster" and therefore disqualified him from ever helping anyone again. When Penny signed that check, he had no idea he'd see his namesake building every day at work 10 years later. James Wiseman was in elementary school. When Penny helped Wiseman's family move to Memphis in 2017, Tubby Smith was coach of the Tigers. Sorry to say it, but, uh, nobody was boosting that operation.
By that logic, any season ticket holder should be barred from passing out candy on Halloween. Next time you're stopped at a red light and see a kid in football pads asking for donations, tell him "Sorry. I'd love to give you my cupholder change, but I don't want to jeopardize your college career." No former student-athlete, then, can make a monetary donation to their alma mater without this excessive scrutiny. I'm no expert, but I remember learning something about a "chilling effect" in my constitutional law classes. How convenient for those who see the tide turning.
They are scared. They see what Penny is doing at Memphis: bringing NBA swagger to college in an environment that prepares players for what they really want to do. They see public opinion turning in favor of athletes' rights. They see universities resisting their arbitrary enforcement. They see the changing faces on the sidelines. So they punish ... the athletes?
They say their mission is to "support student-athletes on and off the field, in the classroom and in life" and they keep getting caught in a lie. If they supported Wiseman — who is completely innocent in all of this — they wouldn't have "likely" rescinded his eligibility five months after they granted it. Instead, they waited until he had already played a game and couldn't just go somewhere else. Because of their transfer policies and one-and-done rules, he has no choice but to fight. The NCAA cannot come out of this looking like the good guy.
As an alumna, and, you know, a compassionate human, I'm proud to see the U of M stand up and say "that's not fair, and we're not going to do that." Play Wiseman in every single game and take it all the way to the Supreme Court if it comes to that. Hang the 2008 banner, too, while we're thinking about it. The rules may be the rules, but that doesn't make them just. Universities like the U of M that don't have the blue-blood prestige, monster TV deals, and big-conference paychecks can't afford to sit back and shrug while the capricious NCAA clings to relevance. Let them vacate the entire season if this is the hill they want to die on. We'll be there for the whole show.
Jen Clarke is an unapologetic Memphian and a digital marketing specialist.