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  • Client recruiter Christian Dawkins and basketball organizer Merl Code seem relieved by the jury’s verdict on Wednesday. But the repercussions of the two college basketball corruption trials could prove considerable.
By Michael McCann
May 08, 2019

It’s never good to be convicted of a felony, but client recruiter Christian Dawkins and basketball organizer Merl Code seem relieved by the jury’s verdict in the second college basketball corruption trial. Following a two-week trial, jurors on Wednesday afternoon returned guilty verdicts on two of the six charges faced by Dawkins, and on one of the four charges faced by Code. Jurors convicted Dawkins of bribery and conspiracy to commit bribery while they convicted Code of conspiracy to commit bribery. Jurors, however, found Dawkins and Code not guilty on charges for wire fraud and conspiracy to violate the travel act and, in the case of Code, not guilty on a bribery charge.

After leaving the courthouse, Dawkins told The New York Times’ Billy Witz, “any time you beat the federal government on seven of 10 counts, that’s a win.” For his part, Code insists that the trial proved there was a lack of evidence that he committed bribery (jurors, however, found that Code joined Dawkins in a bribery conspiracy).             

Dawkins and Code were accused of devising a scheme whereby they bribed college basketball coaches. In exchange, the coaches urged their players to retain Dawkins’s sports management company, “Live Out Your Dreams” or “LOYD,” upon those players’ pursuit of the NBA and potential endorsement deals. The coaches were assistants at South Carolina, Oklahoma State, Arizona, University of Southern California, Creighton and Texas Christian University. Several of them have agreed to plea deals with prosecutors and will be sentenced accordingly.

A substantial, and possibly essential, portion of the funding for the bribes came from an undercover FBI agent. The agent went by the pseudonym “Jeff DeAngelo.” As first revealed by SI’s Jake Fischer and Jon Wertheim, DeAngelo portrayed himself as a wealthy businessperson with the aspiration to become a powerbroker in college hoops. DeAngelo then infused Dawkins, who appeared to share similarly lofty ambitions, with thousands of dollars—which, unbeknownst to Dawkins and Code, was FBI money. DeAngelo encouraged, if not outright pressured, Dawkins to bribe coaches with the money.

Jurors concluded that Dawkins, in part through Code, partook in a bribery scheme. However, while on the witness stand, Dawkins revealed that he had pocketed some of DeAngelo’s money. Dawkins also ridiculed prosecutors’ contention that he could meaningfully influence college basketball stars through assistant coaches. Dawkins insisted that such stars retain de facto agents long before they enter college and that assistant coaches lack the requisite sway.

In response to Wednesday’s verdicts, Fischer tweeted an astute inference derived from the trial’s findings: the FBI probably hoped to use Dawkins to bribe prominent head coaches who they suspected of cheating, but that plan never materialized. Evidence and testimony only showed payments to assistant coaches. To date, no head coach has been charged.

The verdicts count as a “win," albeit hardly a knockout, for federal prosecutors from the Southern District of New York (SDNY). They proved, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Dawkins and Code designed and carried out a conspiracy to bribe coaches. The central narrative of the prosecution was thus confirmed.

The victory is nonetheless underwhelming given that (1) Dawkins and Code—and their lead attorneys, Steve Haney and Mark Moore—defeated most of the charges; (2) SDNY prosecutors are regarded as the nation’s best and yet were partly bested; and (3) the verdicts contrast sharply with those from the first college basketball corruption trial, where SDNY prosecutors obtained guilty verdicts on all counts. In that first trial, Dawkins, Code and Adidas director of global marketing James Gatto were found guilty of wire fraud and conspiracy in a plot to bribe high school players to join Adidas-sponsored college basketball programs.

Dawkins and Code already face six-month prison sentences from the first trial’s convictions. However, U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan ruled that the sentences for Dawkins, Code and Gatto will not start unless and until their appeals play out without success. As to the convictions from the second trial, U.S. District Judge Edgardo Ramos will sentence Dawkins and Code at a later date.

 

A third college basketball corruption trial is scheduled for June, but as of Tuesday, both of its defendants had reached plea deals, thus rendering the trial subject to cancellation. Clothing executive Rashan Michel is accused of conspiring with fired Auburn University associate head coach Chuck Person to persuade college players to use Michel's clothing service. Both Michel and Person have agreed to plead guilty to conspiracy. They will be sentenced by U.S. District Judge Loretta Preska at later dates.

NCAA Aftermath and Impact on College Basketball: Will the convictions matter?

The repercussions of the two trials as they relate to NCAA compliance could prove considerable. The NCAA is investigating schools implicated in the FBI’s probe and could punish programs for, among other infractions, lack of institutional control. Also, even though no head coaches were proven to have taken bribes, those head coaches could nonetheless face punishments for failing to properly monitor assistant coaches.

The NCAA is free to rely on available evidence and witness testimony adduced through the trials and through the larger Justice Department probe into college basketball corruption. However, as I explained in my story last week on Sean Miller, the NCAA and universities would be wise to adopt a healthy dose of skepticism towards uncorroborated allegations voiced by unreliable accusers against head coaches.

The million-dollar question is now whether these trials, convictions and plea deals will tangibly change college basketball.

On one hand, defendants who were convicted of, or pleaded guilty to, bribing assistant coaches and players will probably spend some time (most likely months) in prison. To the extent the NCAA hoped for added deterrence through criminal law, they got it: anyone in college hoops who tries to bribe others not only has to worry about the risk of adverse NCAA and employment consequences, but they must also worry about the far more disturbing prospect of a prison sentence. That added deterrence could dissuade some from partaking in wrongdoing in ways that NCAA compliance rules and employment contract simply cannot.

On the other hand, some of the corruption proven in the trials reflects the orchestration of the federal government. Dawkins, who is 26 years old, seemed to suffer from “hoop dreams” found in someone relatively naïve, over-confident and lacking in appreciation for rules. By all accounts, Dawkins wanted to become a prominent dealmaker in basketball and was willing to take any necessary steps to get there. The FBI, in turn, used Dawkins’s ambition against him by connecting him to an undercover agent with a generous wallet.

Dawkins is certainly responsible for the crimes and unethical acts in which he partook. However, to the extent Dawkins represents the central figure in the college basketball corruption scandal, he likely lacks the starring profile that the NCAA might have in mind for that role.

If the NCAA intends to “clean up” the game through criminal prosecutions, it probably would prefer more established persons being held responsible. Gatto is one, as are some of the assistant coaches who have struck plea deals. Whether those outcomes noticeably influence the business and ethics of college basketball is very much in question.

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.

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