After the second and final full week, the college basketball corruption trial is marching towards a verdict, but what do the latest takeaways mean for Sean Miller and Arizona?
The government’s case against client recruiter Christian Dawkins and Adidas consultant and basketball organizer Merl Code advanced during this second and final full week of the trial. Jurors likely came away from the proceedings with more certainty that Dawkins and Code conspired in bribery. On Friday, prosecutors delivered closing arguments before U.S. District Judge Edgardo Ramos and the jury. The trial is expected to formally conclude on Monday. It could take several days thereafter for jurors to reach verdicts.
Meanwhile, several prominent figures in college basketball who are neither defendants nor witnesses have been implicated by trial testimony and evidence. The most significant among them is Arizona head coach Sean Miller, who is mentioned in a recorded conversation as having paid players. Miller has categorically denied ever paying players.
As explained below, the accuracy and believability of the allegation against Miller invite scrutiny. Especially given its due process obligations as a public university, Arizona will need to carefully evaluate the allegation before taking any personnel action against Miller. The university has expended considerable resources over the last two years investigating this particular claim and has yet to uncover corroborating evidence. If Arizona hastily fires Miller in response to an unproven allegation, Miller could in turn sue the school for defamation, among other claims, for ruining his career and slandering his name.
Marching towards a verdict
Prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York hope to persuade jurors that Dawkins and Code conspired to bribe assistant basketball coaches from South Carolina, Oklahoma State, Arizona, University of Southern California, Creighton and Texas Christian University. The coaches were allegedly paid as inducements to disingenuously urge their players to retain the services of Dawkins’ sports management company, Live Out Your Dreams. This fraudulent practice, prosecutors contend, victimized those colleges since they were denied their coaches’ honest services.
During the first week of the trial, prosecutors called Pittsburgh-based financial advisor Marty Blazer to the stand. Blazer is a cooperating witness pursuant to a plea deal. Among other topics, Blazer discussed the circumstances of an FBI video of a meeting that included him, Dawkins and Clemson assistant coach Steve Smith. Blazer recalled the meeting concerned potential payments to Zion Williamson, who at the time was a high school player.
Much of the government’s case hinges on a facilitating role played by an undercover FBI agent who went by the pseudonym Jeff DeAngelo. As first revealed by SI’s Jake Fischer and Jon Wertheim, DeAngelo represented himself to Dawkins as a New Jersey real estate magnate with both the aspirations and financial wherewithal to become an influential figure in the basketball world. DeAngelo supplied thousands of dollars to Dawkins with the expectation that Dawkins would transfer those monies to coaches.
In testimony this week, Dawkins rejected accusations that he bribed coaches. Dawkins insisted that he essentially tricked DeAngelo (who was in fact tricking Dawkins) by keeping the money that DeAngelo had provided him. Dawkins’s attorney, Steven Haney, introduced evidence confirming that Dawkins deposited some of DeAngelo’s purported payments into his own bank account.
The idea that Dawkins took all of the bribe money provided by DeAngelo and not once used it for bribes may be difficult for jurors to believe. Nonetheless, Dawkins maintained that bribing a college coach would have been a waste of money. As Dawkins sees it, the coach lacks meaningful influence over a player’s choice of professional representation. Dawkins also surmised that elite basketball players already have retained de facto agents/advisors long before they enter the NBA. In that same vein, Dawkins ridiculed NCAA amateurism as naïve and he repeatedly expressed support for paying players in contravention of NCAA rules.
Still, Dawkins acknowledged that USC assistant coach Tony Bland (who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit bribery) received as much as $2,000 in payments. This amount of cash is inconsistent with the accounting of prosecutors and the testimony of Blazer, who told jurors that Bland had received a $13,000 payment to influence Marvin Bagley III, a high school player at the time. Whether Bland received $2,000, $13,000 or some other amount is not necessarily crucial: if he was bribed any amount, jurors would be more inclined to reach guilty verdicts.
Jurors also saw videos of former Arizona assistant coach Emanuel “Book” Richardson receiving envelopes stuffed with cash, including while at the office of financial advisor Munish Sood (who previously pleaded guilty and was a business partner of Dawkins). As detailed below, Richardson is a central figure in accusing his former boss, Miller, of paying players.
The second week of trial also included a recording where Richardson claimed that LSU coach Will Wade had told him there was a “deal in place” worth $300,000 to secure the enrollment of current LSU freshman forward Naz Reid. It remains to be seen if this allegation against Wade is supported by actual evidence. Like Miller, Wade did not testify in the trial.
Prosecutors need to convince jurors not just that Dawkins and Code conspired to bribe, but that coaches were bribed as a result. It’s already established that Dawkins and Code bribed high school players and their family members. Last October, the two men, along with Adidas director of global marketing James Gatto, were found guilty of wire fraud and conspiracy in a related criminal enterprise. Jurors were presented with overwhelming evidence and persuasive testimony that Dawkins and Code had directed that money be paid to high school players and family members.
This current trial centers on bribes to coaches. Prosecutors believe there is ample evidence and testimony that Dawkins and Code bribed a number of coaches, including Bland, Richardson, Lamont Evans (initially an assistant coach at South Carolina and later at Oklahoma State), Creighton assistant coach Preston Murphy and TCU assistant coach Corey Barker.
Miller is accused of bribing players
To help prove their case that Dawkins and Code conspired to bribe college coaches, prosecutors played a recording from June 20, 2017, in which Richardson and Dawkins discussed bribes. During the conversation, Richardson tells Dawkins that Miller paid center Deandre Ayton $10,000 a month and that Miller paid guard Rawle Alkins an undisclosed amount. At that time, Ayton was about to start his freshman season at Arizona. A year later he entered the 2018 NBA Draft and was selected first overall by the Phoenix Suns. Alkins played two seasons at Arizona before declaring the for 2018 NBA Draft. He went undrafted and most recently played for the Windy City Bulls on a two-way contract with the Chicago Bulls.
Here is a transcript of the key exchange from the video, as provided by Adam Zagoria:
“Ayton is on campus. Sean’s got to get the (expletive) out of the way and let us work,” Richardson says on the recording.
“We’ll see how Sean plays it out,” Dawkins says.
“You know what he bought per month?” Richardson asks Dawkins.
“What (did) he do?” Dawkins says.
“I told you, 10,” Richardson says.
“He’s putting up some real money for them (N-words),” Dawkins says. “He told me he’s getting killed.”
“But that’s his fault,” Richardson says.
Arizona has multiple reasons to doubt the accusation against Miller
There are many reasons for Arizona to proceed cautiously in response to claims by Dawkins and Richardson.
First, neither Dawkins nor Richardson is a particularly credible witness or a reliable narrator of past events.
Dawkins is a convicted felon who faces additional felonies in this trial. His account that he simply took D’Angelo’s money and pocketed it is theoretically possible, but is thematically inconsistent with the fact that he bribed others. Dawkins’s intentions could also be questioned. He openly dismisses NCAA rules at the potential expense of recruits and their NCAA eligibility. Dawkins has also admitted to inventing facts. He acknowledged that he created a fictitious player at Creighton to help convince DeAngelo to give him more money. If he lied before, he could lie again.
Likewise, Richardson is hardly a trustworthy accuser. He has neither testified nor made himself available to university investigators, who would in turn be able to assess his veracity. Also, by reaching a plea deal involving crimes of bribery, Richardson has acknowledged he partook in dishonest acts. Prosecutors contend that Richardson accepted a bribe of at least $20,000 from Dawkins. His commitment to ethical behavior is suspect, and that cuts against university administrators relying on his unverified claims.
Arizona will also weigh the circumstances of the recording. Neither Dawkins nor Richardson was speaking under oath. It’s also possible that the two men were trying to impress one another. Perhaps they lied or exaggerated as a result. Each had an incentive to portray himself as influential and close to Miller. Sometimes that type of situation can lead one to engage in hyperbole and puffery.
Further, Dawkins admits that he never paid Miller. This is an important point: the person who allegedly masterminded bribes to coaches didn’t pay the coach at issue—Miller.
Arizona will also take stock in the fact that, despite media reporting in 2018 that Miller was caught on a wiretap discussing paying $100,000 to Ayton, no such recording has been played in either trial nor referenced in any government pleading. The only recording that allegedly links Miller to illicit payments is the aforementioned conversation between Dawkins and Richardson. If a recording of Miller exists, it likely would have surfaced by now.
Further, Arizona has conducted multiple investigations into Richardson accepting bribes and has yet to uncover any evidence that Miller partook in any bribes. Investigators have included former federal prosecutors and seasoned criminal defense attorneys. University investigations involved numerous interviews with Miller and other officials from the Wildcats athletic department as well as multi-hour interviews with every player and their family members. Similarly, university investigators have reviewed numerous emails, bank statements and other electronic correspondences. To date, the university has only found that Richardson engaged in bribes and that Richardson acted alone.
Arizona is also mindful that the United States Justice Department has closely scrutinized the evidence, as well as interviewed numerous witnesses. The Justice Department has only brought charges against one Arizona coach: Richardson. The Justice Department would have no reluctance to seek charges against Miller if it believed that Miller was involved. In fact, the Justice Department might prefer to charge Miller given that he would be a far more influential defendant than (yet another) assistant coach. To the extent prosecutors want to deter corruptive practices in college basketball, holding a head coach accountable would send a powerful and threatening message.
Miller’s track record is also a relevant consideration for Arizona. In unequivocal and forceful terms, Miller has publicly and privately denied that he ever paid players. The university has also extensively scrutinized Miller’s statements and behavior and found nothing to contradict those denials.
In fact, since Miller became the Wildcats’ head coach in 2009, persons familiar with the Wildcats’ athletic program regard him as conscientious in terms of adherence to NCAA compliance rules. Miller is known to keep detailed logs of his communications and activities on behalf of the school, and has organized training sessions to emphasize his program’s commitment to NCAA compliance. Miller is also perceived as organized and responsible in terms of his interactions with fans, recruits, alumni and other university employees. It seems Miller takes the different responsibilities of his job seriously and has actively tried to avoid being lumped in with college coaches who are more free-wheeling and less observant of NCAA rules and ethical norms. This impression of Miller has been formed over the last decade. An allegation that Miller would hand tens of thousands of dollars to recruits and conspire with a 26-year-old wanna-be entrepreneur seems starkly inconsistent with that impression.
Despite those reasons, is it possible that Miller bribed elite players so that his program would be more competitive? Absolutely. This is “big time” college basketball, after-all, and bribes to recruits have occurred for a long time. But universities and employers in general try to avoid making rash and major personnel decisions based on mere possibilities and conjecture. They need facts. They need verifiable evidence.
Arizona has important reasons to wait to take any action against Miller
There have been calls for Arizona leadership—namely, university president Robert Robbins and athletic director Dave Heeke—to suspend or fire Miller in the wake of his name surfacing in an unfavorable light during the trial. Like any business, university leaders (including the university’s Board of Regents) are no doubt sensitive to unflattering media attention and the insinuation that they are acting too passively.
This perspective, in my view, misses a number of key points.
First, the university has not been passive. Its attorneys have attended the trial and collected information. Arizona also issued a press release noting that it is monitoring the trial closely and it takes the information presented “very seriously” in light of NCAA and Pac-12 Conference rules. Fact-finding is important before reaching conclusions.
Second, as detailed above, the university has conducted multiple investigations involving multiple law firms into allegations of corruption by Wildcats’ coaches. Since Richardson was charged in September 2017, none of the university’s investigative measures has adduced any evidence to warrant adverse action against Miller. If the school hasn’t identified any wrongdoing by Miller after months of investigative steps, should it now rely on the uncorroborated and non-testimonial claims of persons accused of fraudulent acts to swiftly fire Miller?
Third, the NCAA is investigating schools—including Arizona—that have been implicated by the corruption scandal. At the same time, the NCAA is mindful of not interfering with criminal trials. Expect NCAA investigators to seek to interview Miller not long after the Dawkins trial ends. They would require him to turn over any relevant phone records and bank records and show that he not only refrained from any personal wrongdoing but that he also properly monitored Richardson’s actions. If Miller fails to persuade NCAA investigators of his innocence, the NCAA could sanction him. At that time, Arizona would have clear and unmistakable grounds to take action against Miller: he would be in violation of NCAA rules, either for direct involvement in wrongdoing or for lack of institutional control in failing to adequately monitor his assistant coaches. But until then, the school has found him to be innocent. Should Arizona sanction Miller before the NCAA completes its investigation, the university might disrupt that investigation.
Fourth, due process matters. Arizona is a public university, which is significant for several reasons. Public universities must adhere to requirements found in the U.S. Constitution and relevant state constitutions. Miller could argue that if the university fires him for wrongdoing after finding that he did nothing wrong, the firing would be arbitrary and capricious. After all, the firing would follow an opposite finding of fact. Also, public universities must honor public record requests. Once the Richardson saga and resulting NCAA fallout is over, the university will be obliged to honor requests by media for many types of documents requests related to Richardson and perhaps Miller. If emails show the school raced to fire Miller because school officials felt pressured by media and fans, those officials will look weak.
Fifth, employment contracts matter. Miller has one with Arizona and it accords him a number of rights. If the university wants to suspend or fire him “with cause”—meaning Miller is found to have violated an ethical requirement in the contract, such as breaking NCAA rules—it must first provide him with a “reasonable opportunity” to defend himself. Miller would also have the contractual right to appeal the disciplinary action to the university’s vice president of human resources and university president.
Miller would no doubt avail himself of those procedural rights if fired with cause. The university interprets Miller’s contract to mean he would not be paid following the date of a with cause termination. He would also reportedly lose additional monies from a pension fund if fired with cause or suspended with cause. If the NCAA does not find Miller at fault, it would be difficult for Arizona to fire him with cause since the school has concluded (for now at least) he did nothing wrong.
Alternatively, the university could fire Miller without cause, which is the typical manner in which coaches are fired. It refers to a firing where a coach is simply let go, without any finding of ethical wronging. Miller’s contract indicates he would be paid 50% on the remainder of his base pay plus peripheral pay for each year left on his deal. Miller’s contract runs to May 31, 2022 and is scheduled to annually pay him, on average, about $2.5 million in base pay plus peripheral pay each year.
The university knows that if it fires Miller, and if in doing so states or implies that Miller engaged in wrongdoing, Miller could sue the school—as well as individual university and athletic department officials—for defamation and tortious interference with contractual relations. He would argue that the school has expressed or endorsed untrue, factual-sounding and reputation-damaging allegations about him. While Miller would be a public figure and thus would have the added hurdle of proving actual malice, he could do so by proving that Arizona knowingly published false and defaming information or had reckless disregard for the information’s truth or falsity. It’s unlikely Miller could show that Arizona knowingly lied about him, but proving reckless disregard for the information’s truth or falsity might be more obtainable. Miller knows that the school has thoroughly investigated him and found him to be innocent. For the university to turn around and find that he engaged in wrongdoing, the school better have its facts right.
If Miller sued Arizona, the university would be armed with several potential defenses. One would be to invoke the state’s sovereign immunity law. The law insulates public universities and other public entities from being sued absent their consent. There are number of exceptions and limitations to sovereign immunity that might limit the efficacy of this defense.
Long story short: the Miller situation is a complex one for the university. The university should not rush to judgment—especially a judgment that directly contradicts earlier findings.
Michael McCann is SI’s legal analyst. He is also Associate Dean of the University of New Hampshire School of Law and editor and co-author of The Oxford Handbook of American Sports Law and Court Justice: The Inside Story of My Battle Against the NCAA.