"So Dumb": How the NCAA Fines Athletes Into Submission
Memphis basketball star James Wiseman's $11,500 amateurism penalty is the tip of the iceberg
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Maybe you missed it. Probably you missed it. In January of 2011, University of New Hampshire center Dane DiLiegro was suspended indefinitely for violating team rules. According to a news brief, no further details were provided.
But the details are where things get interesting.
New Hampshire is frigid around the holidays. There’s often a lot of snow. This is good for skiing; it’s not so great if you’re a college basketball player dragging your aching body from a distant parking lot to your home arena for practice. So during winter break of his senior year, DiLiegro came up with a lifehack: he made a photocopy of a friend’s faculty parking pass, and used it to park his car in an arena-adjacent lot.
One day, the team’s athletic trainer spotted him.
Why are you parking there?
Because it’s winter break and I don’t want to park in the snow.
“[The trainer] told an assistant athletic director,” DiLiegro says. “And then it all came down.”
DiLiegro was summoned to the office of the school’s athletic director. He was told that his parking caper violated National Collegiate Athletic Association amateurism rules by qualifying as an “extra benefit”—that is, a goodie that the NCAA forbids athletes from receiving because, uh, the association says so.
Money. Gifts. Flowers. Store discounts. Reduced rent. Meals away from the area around campus. And yes, Xeroxed parking passes. All these things qualify as extra benefits. All of them render athletes ineligible, too, because if athletes get gratis steaks or cash handshakes or the opportunity to avoid some Christmas slush, then pretty soon amateur purity will be despoiled and cats and dogs will be living together and the Big Ten conference will have to drop to Division III. Or something.
We have to report this to the NCAA, DiLiegro recalls being told.
Well, no, you don’t, he recalls responding. This doesn’t have to be a thing. It’s an issue that can easily be contained.
No dice. DiLiegro was suspended. And that wasn’t all. New Hampshire’s NCAA compliance staffers had determined that the financial value of his ersatz parking was approximately $100.
To make good with the association and return to the court, DiLiegro recalls being told, he would have “pay a fine”—that is, donate an equivalent amount, in actual cold, hard cash, to a charity of his choosing.
“I didn’t even really [question it] at the time,” he says now. “Can the NCAA fine me? Can they take my money? What could I do? Say I didn’t pay it. Then what? Would I have to sit out for more games?
“It was so dumb. I’m a 22-year-old kid trying to not walk through the snow. It’s a parking pass. At the end of the day, who gives a s—t? I can’t even imagine the stuff that goes on around the country.”
Imagination isn’t necessary. Last month, the NCAA announced that University of Memphis basketball star James Wiseman would be suspended 12 games and required to make a $11,500 “donation” to a charity of his choice—the better to atone for the terrible, no good, very bad decision of his mother to accept $11,500 in moving expenses from Memphis coach Penny Hardaway in the summer of 2017, back when Hardaway was a successful high school coach and Wiseman’s family wanted to move from Nashville to Memphis so he could play for a former National Basketball Association star.
While Wiseman’s fame and the sheer size of his Not A Fine, But Actually a Donation prompted widespread incredulity—even Democratic presidential long shot Andrew Yang sounded off—the incident also exposed a little-discussed but immensely odious aspect of NCAA amateurism: how the association and its member schools enforce rules that take money from college athletes by taking even more money from college athletes by punishing them with fines.
In 2018, a Clemson University recruit who was given ground transportation costs exceeding the school’s official mileage rate was required to pay $40 to charity, while school athletes who were mistakenly provided meals and per diems for the same meal were required to pay $10 each to charities.
Also in 2018, Michigan State basketball player Miles Bridges was required to pay $40 to charity because members of his family unknowingly had dinner with a sports agent.
In 2017, an Oklahoma State football player who received $65 to place a female student and her friend on the pass last for a homecoming game against Baylor—and said he returned the $65 the next day—ended up having to make a $65 donation to a breast cancer foundation.
That same year, the stepmother of an Oklahoma State basketball player who was undercharged by $541.26 for her stay at an on-campus hotel because her reservation was made through the school’s athletic department and received a discounted rate was required to pay that amount to charity.
In 2014, Stanford University wide receiver Devon Cajuste was required to donate $400 to charity after his summer landlord provided him with meals, movie tickets, and the use of a vacation home.
In 2013, three University of Oklahoma football players were required to donate $3.83 per person to charity after eating more pasta than NCAA regulations allowed during a graduation banquet.
Also in 2013, an Oklahoma soccer recruit was required to donate $9.95 to charity after ordering Internet service costing the same amount while staying in an Embassy Suites hotel during an official campus visit.
In 2012, an Oklahoma track and field athlete who was a midyear transfer and not eligible to compete was required to donate $179 to charity after he received a ring valued for the same amount commemorating the school’s Big 12 Championship.
In 2010, University of Alabama football player Marcell Dareus was ordered by the NCAA to pay $1,787 to charity after he received airfare, lodging, meals, and transportation during two trips to Miami to attend parties hosted by a sports agent.
“When I was playing [in college] you’d hear about this stuff pretty regularly around a lot of really bizarre rules violations,” says Luke Bonner, a former University of Massachusetts basketball player. “Stuff like it’s holiday break, you’re going home for a 48 hours, you catch a lift from an assistant coach or a [team] manager, and it’s a rules violation. ‘Oh, I got this $25 fine.’
“Typically, players aren’t even aware they’re violating a rule. It’s like a 300-page book. Nobody knows that the rules are.”
If the practice of fining unpaid amateur college athletes in amounts big and small seems a bit unfair—if not downright predatory, similar to municipal governments fining the ever-loving s—t out of largely powerless poor people because f—k ‘em, they’re poor—well, that’s certainly not how the NCAA and its member schools see it.
For starters, the association doesn’t call payments such as Wiseman’s fines. True to the semantic spirit that brought the world perfectly clear, not-at-all-Orwellian phrases like student-athlete and collegiate model, the NCAA instead calls them “Student-Athlete Repayment Plans”—which makes it sound as if athletes are paying off the purchase of a new Honda or a iPhone 11, only in these cases no one receives a car or a smartphone, and the money goes to random nonprofit instead of Best Buy or a dealership.
Second, the NCAA’s “Student-Athlete Reinstatement Philosophy” states that player fines—excuse me, repayment plans—are part of “reaching an outcome that considers the well-being of the involved student-athlete while maintaining fairness.”
Again, that sounds pretty swell, akin to something Tom Hanks might say while playing Mr. Rogers. Who doesn’t like well-being and fairness?
Of course, that’s not how athletes tend to experience it.
Consider the story of Matt Bonner, Luke’s older brother. Before he became a longtime NBA sharpshooter, Matt was a star at the University of Florida. And before that, he was a prep All-American.
According to Luke, his older brother also was “a huge dork,” the valedictorian of his high school graduating class. For earning that honor, Matt received a $1,000 scholarship from a local civic group. “I think it was the Rotary Club,” Luke says. “They gave it every year. It was basically, ‘here’s some money to get you started, go do great things and make us proud.”
Matt moved to Gainesville, Florida to start summer school and get an early jump on his college coursework. He used the $1,000 to help pay for his expenses. Fast forward to the fall. Shortly before the start of basketball season, Luke says, the school found out about the money—and believed it could be considered a NCAA rules violation.
“They basically told my brother that ‘this issue goes away if you pay it back,’” Luke says. “‘But if you don’t, you could be suspended for a pretty substantial length of time.’”
At the time, Luke and Matt’s father worked as a Post Office letter carrier. Their mother taught elementary school. For the Bonner family, $1,000 was a significant amount of money. But like DiLiegro, they felt they had no choice but to pay the fine.
Luke remembers his mother picking up extra work, summer school teaching and supervising after school programs, “anything to pay the 1,000 bucks and make it go away.”
“It’s not like my family was a position to contest this in any way,” he says. “It might have been totally fine. Not an issue at all. But there was no way to know. The season was right around the corner. The school was not going to risk its season by playing my brother if he was possibly ineligible. And my parents couldn’t hire a lawyer and figure it out in that time frame.”
Luke Bonner doesn’t believe that Florida was acting out of malice. To the contrary, he suspects that the school was scared—frightened that if it didn’t take aggressive action against his brother, then the association would treat it even more harshly.
DiLiegro feels the same way about his alma mater. In addition to his $100 fine, he served a three-game suspension. That hiatus, he says, cost him a shot at becoming New Hampshire’s all-time leading rebounder.
“I’m thankful to UNH,” DiLiegro says. “I love the program. But they could have exercised some discretion. Three games and a fine? That is ridiculous. At the same time, I understand they were fearful of the NCAA. It wasn’t really their fault.”
This is how successful authoritarian regimes work. They foster compliance and obedience by creating a climate of ambient, unthinking paranoia. A climate in which institutions and individuals—in this case, schools and athletes—are afraid not only of breaking the rules, but also of appearing insufficiently committed to them.
While Matt was being recruited, Luke recalls, he and his family went on an unofficial visit to an Atlantic Coast Conference school. On the way to meet with the school’s president, their rental car suffered a flat tire.
“It was the biggest to-do to figure out if it was okay under NCAA rules to ride in the SUV of one of the assistant coaches, who we had been following,” Luke says. “I think they had to send a photographer to take pictures to have evidence [of the flat], just in case.”
Speaking of evidence, Luke can’t remember what charity his family ended up giving $1,000 to. He’s not sure it mattered to anyone involved. “I have no idea,” he says. “The most important thing was, ‘do we have a paper trail that shows we addressed this?’”
Similarly, DiLiegro didn’t give his—ahem—donation much thought. “I found a homeless shelter down the street from campus, walked in, and handed them a check,” he says.
Why are you doing this? he was asked.
“I didn’t explain it,” he says. “How do you explain that? I just said I wanted to do something nice. And I told them I needed a receipt.”
Of all the indignities the NCAA and its members heap upon college athletes in the name of amateurism—remember when Ohio State University forced football players to let assistant coaches monitor their bank accounts as part of a $1.1 million compliance effort?—compelling them to give money to charities because they failed to fully submit to an illegal, immoral, and utterly arbitrary system of financial control is arguably the grossest. For one, it positions the NCAA, a tax-evasion scheme masquerading as a scholastic enterprise, on the side of actual do-gooding nonprofits.
More nauseatingly, it promotes the notion that amateurism is somehow clean, honest, and virtuous, while college athletes enjoying the fruits of their labors is somehow dirty, corrupt, and morally suspect. After all, if the way to set the moral ledger straight after receiving more money than NCAA rules allow is to give the same amount of money to a good cause, then those NCAA rules must also be … a good cause.
This, of course, is bulls—t. There’s nothing noble about wage suppression and labor exploitation. Yet according to the NCAA’s reinstatement philosophy, player fines are part of an effort to “place the student-athlete back in the position he or she would have been prior to the violation occurring while maintaining the integrity of the Association's values.”
That last part is actually true: athlete fines really do maintain the integrity of the NCAA’s values. But only because those values came be summed up with a single word. Hypocrisy.
The NCAA insists in federal court that it shouldn’t be subject to antitrust law—but defends itself by hiring an expert witness economist whose own college textbook calls the association a classic cartel. The NCAA’s website states that it was “founded to keep college athletes safe” and is “working hard to protect them”; in court, the organization has argued that it has no legal duty to protect college athletes from harm. The NCAA touts education as its raison d’être, yet when University of North Carolina athletes filed lawsuits over the sham classes they took as part of a massive academic fraud scandal, the association insisted that it had no obligation to ensure educational quality.
In 2006, former NCAA president Myles Brand unwittingly summarized the upside-down morality that allows a group of reverse Robin Hoods to steal $11,500 from Wiseman’s family—and countless dollars from countless others—while pretending to make the world a better place. Amateurism, he said, defines the participants in college sports. But not the enterprise.
None of this is lost on Luke Bonner. Now an outspoken advocate for college athletes’ rights, he says that Matt’s experience opened his then-teenaged eyes. “My brother was a really good college basketball player,” he says. “And Florida was a perennial top team. They had sold out crowds, were on national TV all the time.
“I had this moment at one of their games. There was 15,000 people at the area chanting my brother’s name. That was really cool. But holy cow—there’s 15,000 paying customers chanting his name, and my parents had to pay a $1,000 fine essentially for him to be on the court?”
DiLiegro can relate. After college, he played professionally for eight years in Italy and Israel. During that time, he says, he was fined “hundred of times” by his teams.
“Mostly for things like being late to practice,” he says. “One time, I got fined 250 Euros for using ketchup on my potatoes during breakfast. It turns out we weren’t allowed to eat that because there’s sugar in it.”
“It’s different when it’s your employer,” he says. “It definitely makes it easier when they’re paying you.”
This has been Hreal Sports, a weekly-ish newsletter written by Patrick Hruby about sports things that don’t stick to sports. If you have any questions or feedback, contact me at my website, www.patrickhruby.net. And if you enjoyed this, please sign up and share with your friends.