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The James Wiseman fiasco proves that "amateurism" in revenue-generating sports is a sham

November 11, 2019

It's become increasingly popular in media and the wider culture to bash the NCAA, and this is a good thing—it's an institution rife with corruption and hypocrisy, profiting greatly off the unpaid labor of the players who are simultaneously the workforce and the product. The fact that this organization has any power is a historical anomaly and more than a little outrageous. The more people who complain about the system, the better.

But the fact that Memphis freshman and No. 1 2019 recruit James Wiseman was ruled ineligible by the NCAA on Friday is less about the ruling body and more about the sham of "amateur athletics" in sports like football and basketball, which generate huge amounts of revenue for our country's universities. The NCAA's rationale is idiotic, but there's no denying that the details of Wiseman's case are shady—Anfernee Hardaway gave Wiseman and his family $11,500 to move to Memphis in 2017, Wiseman then played for the high school where Hardaway coached (kicking off a legal battle that was never resolved), and last March Memphis hired Hardaway as its next head coach, knowing he'd almost certainly bring Wiseman along.

Of course, the NCAA ruling depended on defining Hardaway as a "booster in perpetuity," which is a moronic designation based on a gift of $1 million he gave to the school a literal decade earlier, and more evidence that even in the rare cases when the NCAA sniffs out something dubious, it manages to bungle the details. (And that's not even getting into the fact that the NCAA cleared Wiseman last year before changing its mind.) Nevertheless, there's a clear and direct line between Hardaway's original gift and Wiseman's eventual decision to join the Memphis team he now coaches. Under the rules of amateur athletics, it's as open-and-shut as these cases come.

Here's the thing, though: The rules are stupid and impractical. In 2016, a down year, the Memphis basketball program still brought in $6 million in revenue, and after it became the latest team to hire and fire Tubby Smith, donations to the athletic department went up in a big way with Hardaway's hire. Ticket sales for this season are also up, and that's due in part to Hardaway, and also in no small part to Wiseman, who is considered the top recruit in his class, a potential No. 1 draft pick, and a player of the year candidate.

I point all this out to show that there is big, big money in college basketball (and even bigger money in football), and the margins can shift quickly based on something as simple as a coach and a player. But the coach has the far better deal—he gets paid what he's worth according to the market. The player? The player gets room and board and about 25 percent of an education he will never use to generate money for himself in the future. The combination of free labor and enormous profits make a player like Wiseman an incredibly valuable asset—it's like being gifted 10,000 shares of Apple stock, and being able to reap the dividends at absolutely no cost.

In short, a cheap commodity like James Wiseman—I use the words "cheap commodity" because that's clearly how the NCAA and the University of Memphis see him—is well worth $11,500 in moving expenses.

Now, we can argue all day about Hardaway's intent, and what Wiseman knew, and whether it's possible to connect the dots beyond a reasonable doubt. But even if it was a dirty deal from the start, the critical point here is that Hardaway was not the real culprit, nor was Wiseman, nor was Wiseman's family. The real culprit is the system of absurd labor exploitation that makes this result inevitable. The names in this specific case don't matter; if you let universities economically abuse the young men who make them money, those young men and the people around them are going to get theirs however they can, and they'll be morally justified in doing so. Why should Wiseman's family refuse $11,500 for moving expenses because it's against the rules of a governing body that will ensure their son is deprived of his market value for a year of giving them his talent?

Unfair systems breed resentment, and resentment breeds a black market that tries to redress inequalities. It's been happening for as long as the NCAA has existed, it will keep happening as long as it persists, and only a fraction of the perpetrators will ever be caught—all of which makes the distribution of "justice" wildly uneven, at best.

The good news is, the tide is turning. When California passed a law allowing college athletes to profit from their likeness and seek endorsement deals, the NCAA's governing board—despite having fought against it—folded like a cheap suit and made it legal throughout the country. NCAA officials know they're wrong, they know their power is built on a mirage, and they know they're operating from a place of weakness. When somebody pushes them, they back off in an attempt to hold onto whatever power remains, and this will only encourage people to keep pushing. If NCAA officials think the half-measure of allowing endorsement deals will end the discontent, they're wrong—it just shows how easily they can be beaten.

On that note, a Tennessee judge temporarily overruled the NCAA on Friday in an emergency ruling, allowing Wiseman to play against Illinois-Chicago. He scored 17 points on 4-4 from the field, along with nine boards, and the NCAA responded with threatening language: "The university chose to play him and ultimately is responsible for ensuring its student-athletes are eligible to play." As the legal process plays out, it's now up to Memphis as to whether it plays Wiseman, knowing that if things go against the university, it could face punishment down the line even if this case isn't resolved until the season ends.

I hope Memphis keeps him on the team, and on the court. Whatever the particulars of this case, the broader truth is that any sin committed by Wiseman and Hardaway pales in comparison to the greater sin of the NCAA's exploitative system. By playing Wiseman, Memphis can court public opinion (see the responses on to the NCAA's statement on Twitter for a good sampling) and continue to demonstrate just how powerless these frauds should be. By degrees, it would bring us closer to the day when the NCAA either folds or undergoes drastic reform, and the young men who generate wealth for America's universities finally get their economic due.