Seventeen years after skipping NCAA amateurism rules to pursue a career in the NBA, 35-year-old J.R. Smith is now a freshman athlete at North Carolina A&T. As reported by The Undefeated on Tuesday, the NCAA has declared the 18-year NBA vet eligible to play on the Aggies’ golf team.
The move ensures that Smith’s status as a former pro basketball player will not render him ineligible to play a different college sport. The NCAA’s recent acquiescence on name, image and likeness further guarantees that any earnings for Smith from ongoing or future endorsement deals will not lead to his ineligibility.
Timing has long been on Smith’s side.
In 2004, Smith, then a senior at St. Benedict’s Prep in New Jersey, declared for the NBA Draft. He did so after reneging on a commitment to play at UNC and for coach Roy Williams. The New Orleans Hornets (now the Pelicans) drafted Smith with the 18th pick in the first round. Smith signed a 3-year, $3.1 million deal.
Back then, the collective bargaining agreement between the NBA and NBPA permitted American high school players to make “the jump.” Smith was one of only 40 players between 1995 and 2005 to do so. Had Smith been born two years later, he would not have had the chance: The next CBA conditioned eligibility for American players on being at least 19 years old and at least one NBA season elapsing from the time of their scheduled graduation from high school.
Smith went on to play 18 seasons in the NBA. Although never a superstar, Smith won the NBA’s sixth man of the year award in 2013. He’s also a two-time NBA champion with the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Los Angeles Lakers.
Smith became very wealthy, earning $90.3 million in NBA salaries, according to Spotrac. He’s also enjoyed lucrative endorsement deals, including one with American clothing brand Supreme—a deal that sparked an unusual dispute between Smith and the NBA over a leg tattoo that ran afoul of NBA-NBPA intellectual property policies.
The NCAA permitting Smith to play a different sport is consistent with the association’s rules and several previous situations. While Article 12 of the NCAA’s bylaws stipulates that “only an amateur student-athlete is eligible for intercollegiate participation in a particular sport,” there is a longstanding exception within Article 12 for “a professional athlete in one sport.” Such an athlete “may represent a member institution in another sport.”
Athletes who took advantage of the two-sport exception include former MLB and NFL player Deion Sanders, and Danny Ainge, who in the late 1970s played basketball at BYU while also playing second base for the Toronto Blue Jays (the Boston Celtics drafted Ainge in 1981 and successfully battled the Blue Jays in federal court over Ainge’s rights). The NCAA also reasoned that Mo’ne Davis, who at age 13 signed an endorsement deal with Chevrolet after starring in the Little League World Series, was eligible to play a different college sport, softball, at Hampton University.
But critics charge the NCAA has not always seemed consistent with two-sport stars. In the early 2000s, the NCAA reasoned that Jeremy Bloom, a football player at Colorado, was ineligible due to endorsement deals stemming from his skiing and modeling careers.
Smith need not worry about such an outcome. He can earn from NIL while enjoying the millions he’s already made. Plus, as a (relatively) older and wiser college freshman, Smith might be well positioned to excel academically—embodying the NCAA ideal of the student-athlete.