A strange, important thing happened in college basketball. A player, coach and athletic director at the heart of an academic scandal were actually punished. Not chastised in the usual NCAA sanction sense—no one cares about vacated wins or loss of scholarships—but actually forced to pay money. Money talks in college sports, so what went down at the University of Memphis is worth exploring.
In 2007-2008, a Memphis team led by John Calipari and freshman Derrick Rose won 38 games and lost in overtime of the NCAA Championship Game. With rumors already flying, Rose went to the NBA, and a year later Calipari left for Kentucky. Reports emerged that Rose had used a stand-in to take his SAT, which was later invalidated by Educational Testing Services. This made Rose retroactively ineligible, and the NCAA stripped the Tigers of their wins and banners.
This loss of prestige, combined with three years' probation, forms the heart of the argument by an unknown number of season ticket holders. They threatened Memphis with a lawsuit, claiming
"they were deceived into purchasing said tickets and making donations to the Tiger Scholarship Fund under false pretenses in that they did not know there might be allegations forthcoming in the future as a result of alleged misconduct on the part of the Putative Defendants that could potentially depreciate the value of said season tickets."
In plain talk: Memphis's violations meant that future season tickets were less valuable, so Rose, Calipari (who had nothing to do with Rose's SAT shenanigans) and athletic director R.C. Johnson owed them money. The ticket holders were willing to go to court to prove it. The would-be defendants were less eager.
In documents uncovered yesterday by the Memphis Commercial Appeal, the three reached an out-of-court settlement. Calipari and Rose agreed to reimburse ticket holders to the tune of $100,000. Additionally, Calipari and Johnson, who received contract bonuses for their Final Four run, will donate their post-tax bonuses to the Tiger Scholarship Fund. That's $232,000 from Coach Cal and $71,000 from Johnson. As for Rose, the agreement (viewable in full below) states that
"Mr. Rose is appreciative of his time and opportunities at the University of Memphis, and as such, will consider, exercising good faith and intentions, making a suitable donation to the University of Memphis Scholarship Fund."
What does this all mean for the future? That's a great question. The case never saw a courtroom, so there's no precedent. Except there might be an informal one. As Eamonn Brennan writes,
Calipari (and, at least to some extent, Rose) decided early in the process that a few hundred thousand tops wasn't worth the possibility of a wave of "Fans sue coach, player for vacated season" headlines.
Will we see a wave of fans threatening legal action against programs that get caught in violations? Not unless they're highly placed and well-connected. Martin Zummach, one of the attorneys representing ticket holders, has served as the president of Memphis's Alumni Association, and has the ear of many a donor. Money talks.
There's little deterrent established either. Rose made his name in a one-and-done college career, got drafted first overall, and two years and millions of dollars later has to pay back a pittance. Calipari parlayed his Memphis run into a $4 million-a-year deal with Kentucky, and Johnson received a three-year contract extension in 2009. Additionally, they're only paying back bonuses they received because they fielded an ineligible player. They're not paying out of pocket, only failing to collect on ill-gotten gains. Would the three of them do it again, knowing the rewards and costs? In a heartbeat.
And of course, the program keeps its nose clean. No one is seriously hurt, and only the ticket holders who receive a partial reimbursement stand to gain. But those fans got to experience the excitement and pride of that glorious spring of 2008, a feeling that can't be taken away by vacating the wins. Are they entitled to financial compensation, knowing that 99 percent of them would be fully on board with "win at all costs" again? That's another question entirely.