The U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York stood in his suit next to a bunch of other guys in suits, and two multi-colored charts with circles and arrows indicating who was paying what, where and why.
Joon Kim spoke of wiretaps and video surveillance and undercover operatives and cooperating witnesses. Of a sports apparel giant creating fake invoices and purchase orders to disguise six-figure payments to the families of star basketball prospects in return for playing at universities it sponsors. Of assistant coaches at four prominent schools accepting envelopes of cash in Vegas hotel rooms to steer players to certain agents when they turn pro.
Of one coach, former San Diego State and current USC assistant Tony Bland, telling the crooked agents on an FBI recording after allegedly taking a $13,000 bribe: “I definitely can get the players … I can definitely mold the players and put them in the lap of you guys.”
Of another coach telling a mother that he wasn’t making a penny if her son chose a certain agent, less than a week after being paid off by him.
“The dark underbelly of college basketball,” Kim said.
Now pick up your dropped jaw. Please – pu-lease – don’t act surprised.
SDSU coach Brian Dutcher isn’t. “College basketball,” he said, “has some demons … It’s the nature of this business in some regards.”
It’s what people in and around basketball have known for decades, and what fans should have known but pretend not to – the image of the sport so artfully laundered by an unpredictable three weeks in March, by cheerleaders and bands and face-painted student sections and the idea that the guys on the court theoretically could sit next to them in an Am Lit class.
College basketball is dirty.
Really, really, really dirty.
“Just the tip of the iceberg,” one person associated with the murky world of sports agents told me as the indictments were released Tuesday morning.
“I hate to say this,” an employee of a high-profile school said, “but this … is … nothing.”
It’s hard to pinpoint where it all went sideways, whether it was the siren call of bloated NBA salaries, or the burgeoning industry of professional player representation, or the increased influence of the AAU recruiting circuit and its shady coaches, or the big-money sneaker wars, or the decline in morality among parents, or the lost soul of college athletics that is so obsessed with winning that it compels otherwise upstanding head coaches – or, more typically, their dutiful assistants – to do things they’d rather not.
But this is what’s happening:
Brian Bowen, a 6-foot-7 forward from La Lumiere Prep in rural Indiana, was the last unsigned five-star prospect from the class of 2017, and he was said to be leaning toward Michigan State. Or perhaps Arizona. And suddenly, out of nowhere, he committed in June to Louisville, a program that largely had ignored him on the recruiting trail over the previous two years.
A program that recently was penalized for hiring strippers to entertain players and recruits.
A program that has a longstanding relationship with Adidas.
In August, Louisville signed a 10-year, $160-million extension to its apparel sponsorship with the sneaker giant. Athletic director Tom Jurich beamed about their 19-year corporate relationship and said: “The biggest winners in our cooperative partnership have clearly been our student-athletes.”
The indictments unveiled Tuesday outline how wanna-be agent Christian Dawkins conspired with Jim Gatto, Adidas’ director of global sports marketing for basketball, to pay three players as much as $150,000 each to commit to two schools sponsored by the three stripes while also pledging they’d be represented by Dawkins when they got to the NBA. One school, based on information provided in the federal documents, is Miami. The other is Louisville.
Merl Code, Nike’s former director of elite youth basketball now working for Adidas, allegedly says on a wiretap: “You guys are being introduced to … how stuff happens with kids and getting into particular schools, and so this is kind of one of those instances where we needed to step up and help one of our flagship schools in (Louisville), you know, secure a five-star caliber kid.”
The request, the indictment says, came from an unidentified coach at Louisville.
At a meeting in a Las Vegas hotel room a few weeks later, the same crew discussed sending a top 10 player from the high school class of 2019 to Louisville as well, funneling money through an AAU team sponsored by Adidas. Dawkins allegedly says on a conversation recorded by the FBI: “The mom is like … we need our (expletive) money. So we got to be able to fund the situation.”
That was one scheme. The other was bribing assistant college coaches to nudge NBA prospects toward their representation services once they turned pro. Former NBA star Chuck Person at Auburn was ensnarled. So was Emmanuel “Book” Richardson, Sean Miller’s longtime lieutenant at Arizona. So was Oklahoma State’s Lamont Evans, considered one of the nation’s premier recruiters. So was Bland, rapidly acquiring a similar reputation at USC.
Why weren’t any head coaches indicted?
Head coaches, Dawkins explains in one wiretap, “ain’t willing to (take bribes) ’cause they’re making too much money. And it’s too risky.”
That’s how it works. Head coaches don’t want to know what’s going on so they can claim plausible deniability if the dam breaks, instead overpaying assistant coaches so they can use a portion of their salaries to slip cash to players and their families. The NCAA knows what’s happening but doesn’t have the stomach or investigative resources to clean it up.
The FBI does. And will.
So what happens now?
College basketball coaches at many top programs don’t get a lot of sleep, is what – worried the next knock on the door could be the feds, paranoid someone is listening to their conversations, frightened the money trail will ultimately lead to them.
Just the tip of the iceberg.
This … is … nothing.
Do the indicted coaches squeal to avoid prison? Or do they obey the unwritten Omerta code and stay silent, fearing they’ll never get another job in sports if they sing?
The FBI’s Bill Sweeney took the podium at Tuesday’s new conference in New York and offered this shuddering admonition: “Today’s arrests should serve as a warning to others choosing to conduct business in this way in the world of college athletes: We know your playbook. Our investigation is ongoing, and we are conducting additional interviews as I speak.”
One solution, of course, is eradicating one-and-dones, the NBA requirement that players can’t enter the draft until a year after they complete high school. Let them go before college and that instantly scrubs the filth with elite prep players, along with the universities and agents pursuing them.
There are others who will consider this a victimless crime, arguing that, with the NCAA refusing to pay them, players and their families should share in the riches of big-time college basketball. What’s the harm in a few envelopes of cash? Who really gets hurt?
Who gets hurt are the guys who think integrity isn’t spelled with a W. Who don’t engage unscrupulous agents, shoe companies, AAU coaches, parents, uncles, the ubiquitous “handlers.” Who don’t cheat. Who watch more film and diagram more plays, hoping that hard work beats talent.
Which, in basketball, usually doesn’t.
Those are the guys who eventually get fired because they don’t win enough, who uproot their families for a lesser job, whose kids have to go to a new school and make new friends and find new AYSO soccer teams. Those are the victims.
Former coach Fran Fraschilla, now an ESPN analyst, tweeted that he received a text from a coach in a power conference Tuesday. “Today,” it said, “the playing field leveled a little.”