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  • The FBI investigation that has shaken up college basketball sheds light on yet another way student-athletes are pawns used for profit by the adults around them.
By Dan Greene
September 26, 2017

There were a couple of cute little flowcharts displayed Tuesday at the U.S Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, mounted beside a lectern at a press conference about the federal charges being brought in what may end up being an existential scandal for the NCAA. They were there to help understand a complicated set of investigations, the gist of which was this: A sportswear company and various advisors or managers had paid college basketball coaches for access to players and their families, or paid players and their families for the players’ commitment to attend affiliated schools, violating federal bribery and fraud law in the process. The charts were a who-gets-what breakdown of the cyclical transactions, and towards the end of the press conference, a reporter asked Joon H. Kim, the district’s acting U.S. attorney, a key question: If all parties involved are receiving something, who are the supposed victims?

The answer to that question begins on the chart labeled “Alleged Coach Bribery Scheme,” detailing the behavior of Auburn assistant coach Chuck Person and Oklahoma State assistant Lamont Evans, both of whom have been arrested as part of the investigation. The arrow going toward the coaches is money. The arrow toward the managers and advisors is also money, in the form of the players’ potential business during their professional careers. But the arrow to the players and their families is simply marked “Pressure on Players.”

That pressure is ostensibly for the benefit of the coaches providing them with the services of these advisors and managers. But the players are not being set up with a service they would not otherwise have: If they are an NBA-bound prospect, they are not going to be wanting for potential advisors and managers. What Persons and Evans were offering was supposed to be a way for players and their families to wade through those unfamiliar, predatory waters. Instead, what they offered was a self-motivated transaction under the guise of guidance.

The details of the Person investigation are particularly insightful and damning, a perfect window into the distorted power dynamics of collegiate athletics. Person told a financial advisor, who was cooperating with law enforcement, that an NBA prospect on Auburn’s roster “listens to one person... That’s me, yep.” The player later told the advisor that “whatever [Person is] good with, I’m with. I trust him 100%.” And thus Person steered the player toward the advisor, arranging meetings and giving him his endorsement. Person told the player’s mother that he used the advisor as well, that the advisor also worked with Charles Barkley, and that Person was not “getting anything” for putting the advisor and player in touch.

None of those things were true. According to the criminal complaint, Person did not employ the advisor himself. Neither did Charles Barkley. And Person had been negotiating a series of payments for up to $60,000 from the advisor and a suit-maker, Rashan Michel, in exchange for the player’s business. Even worse, according to the complaint, Person had never asked the advisor about his qualifications, client base, or “anything else about [the advisor’s] business.” The complaint says that a simple Google search of the advisor’s name would have revealed the advisor was facing allegations of securities fraud from the U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission. With his player’s complete trust, Person chose to steer him toward the highest bidder, no matter how little he knew about him or how little integrity may have been on public record. And in the cases of Evans, Arizona assistant Emanuel “Book” Richardson, and USC assistant Tony Bland, they steered athletes toward an agent, Christian Dawkins, who was reportedly fired by his agency in May for charging $42,000 in Uber rides to a client’s credit cards.

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All of this is of course made possible by the bizarre, outdated, exploitive definition of amateurism that serves as the NCAA’s raison d’etre. It moves the entire business of players and their families securing their financial futures under the table, distorting the power dynamics at play and barring players from the type of open communication and courtship with potential agents and advisors that would be in their best interest. (This also goes for the allegations of players being paid to attend certain schools. Without the ability to negotiate above board, their leverage and earning power are significantly stifled, artificially depressing payments. As free agency has taught us, bidding wars help players maximize their compensation, the way all of us would like for ourselves.) Amateurism does not eliminate the market for athletes’ services. It just creates a briber’s market.

And thus the announcement of Tuesday’s investigation sheds light on yet another way college athletes are pawns exploited for profit by the adults around them. Athletes are often already insufficiently compensated with education, as UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen and others have pointed out; the time demands of a high-level athlete and a school’s vested interest in just getting them through whatever classes they can pass mean they often get less out of their credit hours than others would. Now it’s clear as day that while the money athletes generate on the court and field already provides the paychecks for those around them, there are more clandestine revenue sources for coaches as well. These come at the cost of the athletes potentially being deliberately misguided by those they trust the most. Some compensation.

Consider a joke tweeted by noted Twitter scholar @trillballins: “Imagine going to jail for giving money to a teenager to dunk a basketball for you.” Of course, those arrested (10 people thus far, four of which were assistant basketball coaches) only face these allegations because they work in an industry where paying a teenager to dunk a basketball for you is not allowed, creating ripe conditions for market forces to beget illicit schemes, with the athletes themselves—whose skills and labor drive the entire industry—getting the shortest end of the stick. At Tuesday’s press conference, Kim, the acting U.S. attorney, lamented how the alleged actions uncovered by the investigation “sullied the spirit of amateur athletics.” They actually showed the truth of them.

An announcement as explosive and far-reaching as Tuesday’s leaves a lot to consider as the fallout comes down. Will Louisville coach Rick Pitino keep his job? How will this impact implicated schools like Louisville and Arizona, both expected to be top-10 in the country this season? What will it mean for the cozy ties between shoe companies, schools, coaches and AAU programs? But when you’re sorting through all of it, keep in mind the best interests of the athletes themselves—or as coaches say, the kids. At least someone should.