- With no blockbuster convictions in federal court, perhaps the people who run college sports are nearly ready to accept that the only way to neutralize the black market is to change the rules.
The verdicts came down Wednesday in the second college basketball corruption trial in federal court in New York. Oh, you missed that? Don’t worry. Nearly everyone else did, too.
The investigation was announced with great fanfare after the arrests were made on the morning of Sept. 26, 2017. “We have your playbook,” FBI assistant director William Sweeney said at a press conference. Said Joon Kim, the acting U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York: “For the 10 charged men, the madness of college basketball went well beyond the Big Dance in March. Month after month, the defendants exploited the hoop dreams of student-athletes around the country, allegedly treating them as little more than opportunities to enrich themselves through bribery and fraud schemes.”
I’d pay at least five American dollars to see a video of the dueling chef’s kisses those two federal employees almost assuredly used to punctuate the formulation of those statements. I’d also love to hear an honest appraisal of the federal government’s investigation into college basketball now that all the plea deals have been struck and the trials have ended with guilty verdicts on some counts and not-guilty verdicts on others. On that day in 2017, the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office promised a series of events that would shake college basketball to its core. Today, we know what the millions of our tax dollars they spent on the investigation netted: A fart in a stiff wind. Here’s the final tally.
• Four Power 5 assistant coaches: They all took plea deals, but you’ve only heard of one of them. Former Auburn assistant Chuck Person played in the NBA for a long time. The most interesting of the assistants snared was Arizona’s Emanuel “Book” Richardson, who claimed in communications intercepted by FBI surveillance that despite a respectable six-figure salary, he was going broke because he was paying recruits out of his own pocket.
• One low-level hustler: Christian Dawkins, truly the man at the center of the investigation, was a runner for agent Andy Miller. Dawkins was convicted Wednesday of bribery for paying assistant coaches to influence players with regard to their agent selection. Dawkins also was convicted of fraud following an October trial.
• One shoe company executive: Former Adidas director of global sports marketing Jim Gatto was convicted of wire fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud following the October trial.
• One shoe company consultant: Former Adidas consultant Merl Code was convicted of wire fraud following the October trial and of bribery on Wednesday.
• One shady financial advisor: Munish Sood took a plea deal that included three felonies and testified against those who chose to fight the charges.
• One clothier: Yes, you read that correctly. Atlanta suit guy Rashan Michel copped a plea deal for his role in helping arrange bribes.
The FBI also arrested a Florida-based AAU coach named Brad Augustine, but the charges against Augustine were dropped when he told prosecutors he kept any money intended for players and their families for himself.
That’s it. No sexy names. No sexy charges. (Probably because there is no applicable law against paying people for being good at basketball.) For a moment, it appeared LSU coach Will Wade and Arizona coach Sean Miller would have to take the witness stand in the trial that just wrapped, but the presiding judge nixed their testimonies before the trial because while they would have been the most interesting things to come out of this entire waste of public resources, they didn’t relate directly enough to the charges against Dawkins and Code.
At one point, Kansas claimed it was the victim of a plot by the now-convicted Adidas employees. So that means that after the aforementioned victimization, Kansas dumped its Adidas apparel deal and and signed up with Nike or Under Armour or British Knights, right? Noooooooooope. The Jayhawks cut a new, richer deal with the Three Stripes last month.
Meanwhile, the NCAA empaneled a blue-ribbon committee to produce suggestions to clean up college basketball. The committee’s recommendations?
• End the one-and-done rule. (Which is something the NBA and its players association—not the NCAA—created.)
• Maybe don’t let shoe companies influence the recruiting process so much. (Did the committee have a suggestion for replacing the economic driver for grassroots basketball in America? Not really.)
Meanwhile, the investigation and two trials implicated three Power 5 head coaches in scenarios that don’t violate any law but violate multiple NCAA rules. Somewhere, there’s audio of LSU coach Will Wade talking about a “strong-ass offer” to a middleman representing Javonte Smart, who was the Tigers’ sixth man this past season. Richardson was heard in audio played in court claiming that Arizona head coach Sean Miller paid former Wildcat and 2018 NBA top pick Deandre Ayton to attend the school. Audio of Richardson claiming Wade had a $300,000 deal for forward Naz Reid also was played in court. In the October trial, Adidas-sponsored bagman T.J. Gassnola painted a picture of Kansas coach Bill Self as at least aware of how shoe company dollars were used to land players for his program.
Has the NCAA hammered Wade, Miller, Self or their schools? Nooooooooope. Wade was suspended from LSU’s last regular-game through the end of the Tigers’ NCAA tournament run, but he has since been reinstated. Miller missed a game near the end of the 2017–18 season but coached all year. Self never missed a game, but Kansas was more than happy to hang player Silvio De Sousa out to dry after bagman Gassnola dished on his recruitment during the first trial. Will the NCAA do anything to these coaches? Maybe. But it hasn’t so far.
This is probably for the best, because no definitive proof was offered at trial. But a lack of definitive proof never stopped the NCAA’s enforcement arm before, so you can imagine why other coaches are fuming at a perceived lack of action. Ten years ago, if an assistant coach had told an NCAA investigator what Richardson was caught saying about Miller, the head coach in question would have gotten a 10-year show cause penalty. The old NCAA cops just needed someone to make the accusation. We’ll see what the new ones do. The wheels of NCAA justice turn slowly, so it could be a year or two before we learn if the FBI’s investigation tripped up any head coach besides Rick Pitino, who was fired by Louisville when an indictment accused the school of being involved in a payment for recruit Brian Bowen. (In the upset of the year, Pitino—who claimed in a different NCAA case that he didn’t know his employees were buying strippers for recruits—was the one coach made to look better by testimony in the trial. He apparently was oblivious to everything, according to Dawkins.) Wade led LSU to an SEC regular-season title. Miller and Self are boldfaced names at blueblood programs. They probably were the pelts FBI agents envisioned hanging on the wall when they started this investigation.
I almost hope the NCAA does nothing from this point forward. This case generated such a huge collective yawn that no one in the public outside fans of LSU, Kansas and Arizona’s rivals actually cares what happens to the coaches at those programs. Other coaches within the sport and athletic directors at schools that aren’t competitive enough to team with shoe companies to buy players care deeply, but NCAA inaction in spite of more evidence than the NCAA’s enforcement department could ever hope to collect might finally prompt those people to admit what most of the public has already figured out. The only reason this system of handlers, middlemen and under-the-table payments exists is because the NCAA’s rules—which were voted into existence by the schools—created the market. An arbitrary cap on paying people who provide a valuable service will create a black market 100% of the time, and perhaps the people who run college sports are nearly ready to accept that the only way to neutralize the black market is to change the rules. An unwillingness by the NCAA to enforce its own rules in this case might be enough to push the last of the true believers to finally accept reality on reality’s terms.
Those of us who cover college sports could have told feds they were wasting their time if they’d asked. The public stopped caring a while back about whether college athletes got slid a few extra hundreds or a few extra thousands by middlemen looking to get rich on the backs of those athletes. Fans have been watching the coaches and athletic directors get progressively richer off the backs of those athletes for decades. The athletes are compensated, sure. And free tuition, room and board is valuable compensation. But this is America. Everyone has a right to demand a raise. And the money flowing through the black market proves some players are worth more than they’re getting. Most fans don’t mind anymore if the players get that money.
My rhetoric on this subject hasn’t changed since I started writing for SI. What has changed is the response to it. When I wrote in 2011 that the most sensible solution to most of these issues was to allow players to profit off their likenesses while not changing the amount of compensation that schools offer directly, readers thought I was crazy. Now? A lot of them would be fine with it. A Republican congressman introduced a bill in the U.S. House earlier this year that would force the schools to allow such a scenario. At the Final Four, NCAA president Mark Emmert didn’t dismiss the idea out of hand—which is progress considering he and others of his ilk would have laughed at it two or three years ago.
If Emmert and the commissioners, presidents and athletic directors who run major college sports learn anything from the FBI’s investigation and the subsequent trials, it should be that public sentiment has turned. This is the sort of thing that would have drawn massive attention back when we clucked our tongues at football players getting free shopping sprees at Foot Locker. But the world has changed. Hardly anyone cared about players getting money, so why not cut out the slimy middlemen and give the players an avenue to collect the money themselves?
Will that happen? Eventually, but probably not quite yet. More immediately, this is the result we should expect after the FBI dove into the cesspool that is college basketball and emerged with Chuck Person and a bunch of guys most people had never heard of…