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University Of Memphis Defies NCAA, Tests Enforcement Of Amateurism Rules


In men's college basketball last night, an early season matchup between top 20 teams ended with Oregon beating Memphis in Portland. But the bigger story of the game was the presence of Memphis freshman star player James Wiseman. He is right in the middle of a legal battle with the NCAA. NPR's Tom Goldman says Wiseman's case is generating more anger about the NCAA's strict rules on amateurism.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: It's not often the mere act of putting a basketball player in a starting lineup is controversial.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Center, 7'1", from Nashville, Tenn., number 32, James Wiseman.

GOLDMAN: But last night, as Memphis freshman center James Wiseman jogged onto the court in Portland for pregame introductions, it was indeed a moment of significant controversy - another act of defiance, says Michael McCann. He's a legal analyst for Sports Illustrated.

MICHAEL MCCANN: It's a university essentially telling the NCAA, we're doing what we want, and we're not afraid of you.

GOLDMAN: Last week, before Memphis' season began, the NCAA indicated Wiseman would be ineligible to play. The NCAA believed Wiseman got an improper benefit from his current head coach, Penny Hardaway. In 2017, Hardaway was a high school coach in Memphis, and he paid Wiseman's mom a little more than $11,000 to help her move her family to Memphis, where Wiseman played high school ball for Hardaway. Years before, Hardaway had donated a million dollars to the university, his alma mater. McCann says in the NCAA's mind, that made Hardaway a booster for the university.

MCCANN: And because of that, Wiseman is ineligible or appears to be ineligible because a player can't have expenses paid for by a booster.

GOLDMAN: Lawyers for Wiseman argue the NCAA knew about the Hardaway payment to Wiseman's mom when it cleared Wiseman to play in May. The attorneys rushed to a Tennessee court last Friday and got a temporary restraining order. Wiseman has played all three of Memphis' games with support from the university and most of Memphis.

REGGIE GLASPIE: I'm a hundred percent behind him.

GOLDMAN: Forty-six-year-old Memphis resident Reggie Glaspie made the trip to Portland for last night's game.

GLASPIE: I think Penny, number one, has the best interests of the kids, and I think that he's doing right by trying to just let the NCAA know that, hey, you can't pick on us.

GOLDMAN: Anti-NCAA sentiment has been percolating nationwide since late September. That's when California passed its law allowing college athletes to be compensated for the use of their name, image and likeness, a different case than the one in Memphis, says Daily Memphian sports columnist Geoff Calkins. But really, it's all of the same piece.

GEOFF CALKINS: People are realizing that the fundamental rules that undergird all of this are based on a system of amateurism which makes no sense. And so, sure, were - was there a violation of rules that make no sense?

GOLDMAN: The NCAA said in a statement Memphis was notified Wiseman is likely ineligible. The university chose to play him, the statement continued, and ultimately is responsible for ensuring its student athletes are eligible to play. Possible NCAA punishment could include the school forfeiting games in which Wiseman played.



GOLDMAN: Wiseman only played about half of last night's game because of early foul trouble. Still, he scored 14 points, had 12 rebounds and showed the agility and power that are expected to make him one of the top NBA draft picks next year. He didn't talk to reporters afterwards. The university is guarding him closely. For now, his lawyers are doing the talking. There's a hearing on his case scheduled for next Monday. Two days before, Memphis plays Alcorn State and, with James Wiseman in the starting lineup, will defy the NCAA once again.

Tom Goldman, NPR News, Portland.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE MOUNTAIN HOWL'S "MELT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.

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