NCAA's ruling on James Wiseman sure to rankle Memphis fans still haunted by 'strict liability'

Sporting News

For those who follow any sports team, there is bound to be a simple phrase from the past whose mention can conjure the worst memories of what it means to be a fan. For those who love the Dallas Cowboys, it might be "Dez caught it." With the Boston Red Sox, it's simply, "Bucky F—ing Dent."

With the Memphis Tigers, though, it is not necessarily something heartbreaking that occurred during a game, or else the words in question might be "free throw." No, it’s what came after Derrick Rose missed a foul shot that might have clinched the 2008 NCAA Tournament championship.

The words that haunt Tigers fans are these: "strict liability."

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They no doubt could hear those words echoing in the background as they considered the news that super recruit James Wiseman, a center who is the first No. 1 prep prospect to choose the Tigers since Rose a dozen years earlier, was declared ineligible by the NCAA because of an amateurism issue, then OK'd to play because of a court injunction.

They wonder if what was presenting itself as a dream season suddenly will be shattered. The injunction will hold for Friday’s game against UIC, but what of a scheduled game against Pac-12 Conference favorite Oregon, which is scheduled for Tuesday? What of all the games they are to play between now and when the Final Four is contested in Atlanta?

Mostly, they wonder if Memphis is going to be targeted every time the Tigers are successful in recruiting elite players. "He is being punished for not choosing a blue blood school," wrote poster aardWolf on the message board. "It was fun while it lasted but you can't have a school like Memphis upsetting the P5," wrote TigerTim in the same venue.

The facts of the Wiseman case may or may not support this concern. We don’t know enough to even venture an opinion. But the fiasco the NCAA infractions committee created around Rose's eligibility gives those commenters a basis for their suspicion.

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"Strict liability" was a term the chairman of the NCAA infractions committee, the late Paul Dee of the University of Miami, employed when the Memphis basketball program was dragged through the enforcement process for some fairly meager charges: some billing issues for trips made by Rose's brother on the Tigers’ team charters, as well as Rose's eligibility stemming from a specious examination of his qualifying test score.

Rose's eligibility to compete had been affirmed multiple times by the NCAA, including its eligibility center, in advance of the 2007-08 season. Near the close of that season, for reasons that never have been entirely clear, officials at the College Board attempted to contact Rose regarding his test score. They sent a letter to his home in Chicago. Rose, however, was in Memphis — or in Little Rock, Houston and San Antonio playing in the NCAA Tournament.

Rose never responded to the College Board, perhaps because by the time he found out about such a letter, he was finished with NCAA basketball and on his way to being the No. 1 overall selection in the 2008 NBA Draft. Because he did not cooperate with its inquiry, the College Board invalidated his test score.

So even though the NCAA had approved Rose’s eligibility prior to the season he played, Dee announced Rose had been ineligible through the doctrine of "strict liability." Memphis should have known Rose was ineligible even though the NCAA told him he was clear to play.

It was as preposterous then as it is now, especially because on multiple occasions over the past 20 years, higher-profile schools have had athletes discovered to be retroactively ineligible and continued forward without punishment.

The NCAA never proved Rose did not take his test. It hired a handwriting expert who said it was "probably" not Rose who signed the test. This seems a pathetic standard to employ when punishing a school with the loss of a Final Four appearance. But "strict liability" meant this wasn't really an issue. It didn't matter whether Rose took the test, only that it had been retroactively canceled.

Wiseman is a spectacular prospect: a 7-1 center who runs the court as well as any player his size ever has. He needs to learn to play more consistently with high energy, and it won't hurt if he improves his perimeter jumper; college basketball is supposed to give him the opportunity to do that.

The NCAA is claiming Hardaway presented $11,500 to Wiseman’s mother in 2017, when the family moved from Nashville to Memphis. Wiseman then played a year for Hardaway at East High, and they won a Tennessee state championship. After Hardaway was hired as Tigers head coach, Wiseman committed to play for him this season, which certainly will be his only year in college before entering the 2020 NBA Draft.

According to the suit Wiseman’s attorneys filed to restore his eligibility, this information was known to the NCAA at the time his eligibility was certified. Memphis has agreed the money was paid -- but stated its public support for Wiseman’s challenge of the NCAA.

"We will continue to be cooperative, respectful and professional in our dealings with the NCAA, while availing ourselves of every resource in the best interests of our student-athletes, our coach, and our University," athletic director Laird Veatch said in the school's statement. "It is clear to me in my short time here that Memphians will stand up and fight, both for each other and for what is right, and I am proud to stand with them."

Tigers fans will fight, for sure, but they will wonder all the while if it’s a rigged contest. After stewing in "strict liability" for a decade, they are entitled to their paranoia.

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