Richard Washington, who led the Mountain West in scoring at 19.5 points per game last season, returned to San Jose State for his final campaign because he believed he could help new head coach Tim Miles after last year's 5-16 showing that resulted in the dismissal of former head coach Jean Prioleau. As the Spartans prepare for their season-opening matchup at Cal State-Fullerton on Thursday, however, Washington will not be available.
After signing with a non-certified agent, testing the NBA draft waters and receiving nearly $3,000 for his participation in a 3-on-3 tournament, Washington must serve a season-long suspension, the NCAA ruled in September.
At an appeals hearing next week, Washington and San Jose State will attempt to persuade the NCAA to give him another chance.
Washington said his school didn't have a compliance director when he made those choices and he didn't have any contact with the coaching staff that had just been dismissed.
In addition, San Jose State's basketball players had limited access to campus resources because of California's COVID-19 restrictions. The team didn't play its first game in San Jose last season until Feb. 15.
"[The yearlong suspension] was very unexpected because I'm looking at the degree of what I did and I'm like, there is no way that it's more than a three- or four-game suspension," Washington told ESPN. "I found out, a month after being here at school, they had taken my entire year away. That was a crazy feeling. I would have never thought, something to this degree, would have been held to this level of punishment. ... It's really unfair. And for me, it's important to speak out because I know I'm not the only one going through it. It was a definitely a heart-wrenching feeling."
In March, San Jose State fired Prioleau, who won eight Mountain West games in four seasons. Washington had thought about turning pro after last season, but he wasn't certain. He hadn't met Miles and his staff, who had recently been hired. He said he felt like he "had to go pro."
As he was weighing his options, he decided to fly to Indianapolis for a 3-on-3 tournament featuring other college players who were in a similar situation. Washington's team played well and he earned $2,700. He later decided to enter the NBA draft and get a better sense of his pro potential. But he hired a non-certified agent to help him navigate the process.
"I really didn't understand the rules because there was no one here to educate me on it," Washington said. "Our coach, when he got fired, he just left. And all of the other coaches left. No one said anything to them."
A player is allowed to hire an agent and test the NBA draft waters only if that agent is certified through the NCAA. The process has been controversial after the NCAA initially said all agents would have to have a bachelor's degree to be certified. That prompted Rich Paul, agent to LeBron James and other NBA stars, to publicly criticize the NCAA's rules. The NCAA eventually removed the bachelor's degree requirement but many agents have decided against going through its certification process.
Washington didn't get any NBA workouts and he knew that returning to school might be his best choice. Miles agreed and helped the veteran work through the process to secure his reinstatement. Two months before the 2021-22 season started, however, they learned that the NCAA had ruled Washington ineligible.
Washington said he has repaid his agent for expenses related to the NBA draft process and he's willing to repay what he earned in the tournament. He said he hopes the NCAA will understand his situation when he makes his case at next week's appeals hearing.
"Now, we're at a deal where Richard has his appeal," Miles told ESPN. "That's our opportunity hopefully to see that this process is handled correctly, that other people see it the way we see it, which is that the punishment doesn't fit the crime. But I think more people need to understand how this whole process works. The first part is damning and punishing. That's what it feels like. Hopefully, the second part we'll see the sensibilities of really what's going on."
The NCAA is still searching for its identity as a governing body in a world where it recently granted more power to divisions and conferences to make their own rules. Because of a series of lawsuits and legislative actions, it had no choice but to embrace name, image and likeness opportunities for college athletes. It's unclear what role the NCAA will play in the future.
Next week, it will be up to a group of NCAA representatives to decide whether the Mountain West star should be allowed to play this season.
"It's been really hard because this is what I love to do," Washington said. "This is what I've devoted my entire life to, which is one of the reasons I wanted to come back to school in the first place because I realized I didn't really have an identity outside my sport and I wanted to add on to it and I wanted to provide more for myself. ... You take my entire college career away from him like this. After this year, I'm done. For them to say that 'your whole year is gone': For what? It definitely hurt. It's definitely hard to get through the days. At the same time, I'm still optimistic I can make the most of it regardless of their decision."