Memphis and Hardaway Escape Serious Punishment for NCAA Violations

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The University of Memphis men’s basketball team was placed on probation for three years, but the school and its men’s basketball coach, Penny Hardaway, escaped significant punishment on Tuesday when the N.C.A.A. announced the results of an investigation into the recruitment of James Wiseman, who played there briefly before jumping to the N.B.A.

A hearing panel determined that Hardaway’s unique position — a former star player turned community benefactor who donated $1 million to help build an athletics Hall of Fame — made it difficult to ascertain his intentions when he provided $11,500 to Wiseman’s family in 2017 so that Wiseman could relocate to Memphis to play for the high school team Hardaway coached. Hardaway was hired at Memphis the next year, and Wiseman followed him there.

Hardaway had provided similar assistance as a donor to other students over the years, the hearing panel was told.

But the hearing panel did little to punish Memphis — or Hardaway — after the school dug in against the N.C.A.A., backing Wiseman in a lawsuit that briefly reinstated him after the N.C.A.A. had told Memphis he was most likely ineligible. The school also failed to cooperate with investigators, including an assistant coach’s scrubbing data from his computer.

In addition to probation, Memphis was fined $5,000 plus 0.25 percent of its men’s basketball budget and required to vacate two wins and accept a public reprimand, among other requirements.

Hugh Fraser, who is the hearing panel’s chief, said the N.C.A.A. was increasingly concerned with not penalizing athletes who were not involved with wrongdoing and that Memphis’s case did not come close to meeting the threshold for a postseason ban.

“Our intention was to impact those with greater culpability,” Fraser said on a conference call with reporters.

Whether that was accomplished requires believing that Hardaway did not know that the N.C.A.A. had told Memphis that Wiseman, a 7-foot center, was most likely ineligible when he played him in its season opener against South Carolina State. Or understanding why there was no direct punishment after one of his assistants scrubbed his laptop before it was turned over to investigators. “The institution could have done more to preserve” data, Fraser said.

Memphis, despite fighting the investigation at nearly every turn, never bothered to channel its outrage into an appeal of Wiseman’s eligibility. When Wiseman withdrew his lawsuit after three games, the N.C.A.A. set his suspension at 12 games, but it became moot when Wiseman chose to sit out the remainder of the season and prepare for the N.B.A. draft. He is currently with Golden State.

In statements issued by the university, President Bill Hardgrave, Athletic Director Laird Veatch and Hardaway each made a point of thanking the N.C.A.A.’s Independent Accountability Resolution Process panel, which adjudicated the case. The panel is made up of people with relevant expertise who do not work for N.C.A.A. member universities or conferences.

The panel classified all the infractions as Level II and Level III, though investigators had classified four infractions as Level I — the most severe, including three against Hardaway.

“When we thoroughly assess it, we acknowledged that it reached a Level II, but no higher,” Fraser said.

The I.A.R.P. was developed as a way to fast-track infraction cases in the wake of an F.B.I. corruption case that was a window into the under-the-table world of men’s basketball recruiting when it was announced five years ago. But the disciplinary format, which does not allow for appeals, has done little to speed up decisions — and earlier this year, the N.C.A.A. Division I board of directors voted to do away with the panel once it finished its current cases.

Those include four other cases stemming from the F.B.I. probe: Kansas, Arizona, Louisville and Louisiana State. Two of those cases have had their final hearings, said Derrick Crawford, the N.C.A.A. vice president of hearing operations, who added that he expected them all to wrap up by “late spring, early summer of 2023.”

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