Long ago, I covered an amazing corruption trial. The leader of the Massachusetts State Senate was put on trial for extorting money from one of the guys who’d been his bagman for over a decade. The charge was absurd on its face, but it was the only way the federal prosecutors could get to the pol, so that’s what they tried. Some of the testimony was flatly hilarious. The judge was openly hostile to the prosecution’s theory. And the pol was acquitted, though the Feds did eventually convict him on their next try before a different judge.
There is the same sense of absurdity attending the latest—and, to some people, the greatest—scandal to hit college basketball. In brief, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York announced that a two-year (!) investigation by his office and the FBI had discovered a web of intrigue in which high-school basketball prospects had been paid to go to certain schools, and in which coaches had been paid to direct them thence to certain agents, and most of it centering on Adidas, the legendary German shoe company. The acting U.S. Attorney—and we’ll get to that in a moment—is a man named Joon Kim, and let it never be said that Joon Kim doesn’t have a flair for the dramatic. He announced the results of his investigation with a flourish that owed a great deal to one of those old Republic Pictures horror movies. Catman of Paris, say, or Poverty Row Horrors. It helps if you read Kim’s statement in the voice of Christopher Lee, and if you imagine an organ playing scary minor chords in the background.
“The picture of college basketball painted by the charges is not a pretty one—coaches at some of the nation’s top programs taking cash bribes, managers and advisers circling blue-chip prospects like coyotes, and employees of a global sportswear company funneling cash to families of high school recruits."
The scandal has already likely cost Rick Pitino his job at Louisville, and you can be sure he’s only the first of the significant dominoes to fall because this was, you will pardon the expression, a fullcourt press. The FBI got wiretap warrants and bugged the coaches and the shoe company reps. The investigation began when the Feds flipped a shady financial adviser in Pittsburgh who cooperated to keep from spending decades studying institutional dining at one of our finer federal establishments. (The latest reports have Nike in the crosshairs, too, which should surprise approximately nobody.) But, as loud and garish as this announcement was, the whole matter simply reeks of prosecutorial overreach and show-pony justice. It is intriguing to speculate why that might be.
You may recall that this particular U.S. Attorney’s office was the red-hot center of some serious shenanigans shortly after we inaugurated our latest president. Kim’s predecessor, Preet Bhahara, was fired by the new president while Bhahara was looking into the tangled affairs of then-presidential adviser Michael Flynn. This was occurring while suspicions still ran high that the New York FBI office had been feeding anti-Hillary Rodham Clinton material in order to pressure FBI director James Comey. Now, Kim is a veteran prosecutor who fought some serious mob cases, particularly against the Gambinos. He was Bhahara’s chief counsel. He’s as straight an arrow as you can find, and this was a sting every bit as elaborate (and, one supposes, as costly) as anything Kim put together against the remnants of John Gotti’s old crew. But the Southern District and the New York office of the FBI need a win, preferably a big one. Hence the boogedy-boogedy press conference. And this case was a matter of finding some very big fish in some very small barrels.
The bribery charges seem as ludicrous on their face as the extortion charges against that pol seemed in 1980. By all accounts, these were ordinary transactions to anyone who’s studied the history and functions of underground economies, and that’s what college sports at this level have been ever since the NCAA set up shop as the guardians of amateurism, a bastard concept imported from the playing fields of olde England that ultimately has failed everywhere it has been tried in the bustling, capitalist old US of A. The NCAA and its rules became more preposterous as that organization grew fat and prosperous on the backs of what its rules demanded be the unpaid labor of teenagers. The teenagers, being good Americans that they are, looked at the system and asked that most American of economic questions,
So that undercover economy flourished, and it continues to flourish, and it will flourish into the future because there is supply and there is demand and because people would rather watch (and gamble on) the NCAA tournament than watching (or gambling on) conspicuous moral outrage. Don’t want elite athletes to get paid under the table by agents? Let them have agents above the table. Don’t want them to profit covertly from their work? Let them profit overtly. Stop acting like Prohibition revenooers or the Keystone Kops. That is not going to happen, however, because this is the best damn thing that’s happened to the NCAA in a decade.
Not long ago, the NCAA was on the ropes. In court, and in public perception, the threadbare fraud that is the “student-athlete” was unravelling, perhaps for good. The Ed O’Bannon trial in Oakland exposed the NCAA for the profit-driven cartel it’s always been, and the NCAA itself has continued to behave idiotically. (For example, in June, it knuckled a kicker at Central Florida because he had begun a profitable YouTube channel. Seriously.) The momentum toward a more just and lasting split of the staggering revenues with the people most responsible for them seemed irresistible.
Now, though, thanks to the Feds, the NCAA can posture and preen, which is something it does better than fallen Russian royalty ever did. See, it can say to the world through its kept press, these are the barbarians we have been keeping at bay. In fact, if I hear one more allegedly smart observer say that the FBI had to come in to “clean up the NCAA’s house,” I may burn my entire collection of Final Four press passes on Mark Emmert’s front lawn. What the FBI did, and with our money, too, is to turn into the NCAA’s enforcement division and weaponize the ridiculous NCAA rulebook through the federal criminal justice system. Now, paying an athlete can do more than cost you a trip to the Outback Bowl. It can send you to the federal sneezer for a few years. This is a preposterous state of affairs.
I remember witness after witness at that old trial, trying to explain to the court that they all paid the pol’s bagman because they wanted to do so, that they never felt threatened or pressured, they just wanted that state contract and this was the way business was done. Nobody extorted anything from anyone. The pol was that most beloved of Massachusetts public figures, a real good fella. And I can still see the judge nodding along because this seemed to him the most logical thing in the world.
I feel the same way the judge does. On the surface, the charges seem flatly bizarre. Who was defrauded? Generally, it seems that the players got what they were promised, and so did the coaches, and so did the agents. (If you say the NCAA was the injured party, or the universities, go stand in the corner of Indianapolis until we say you can leave.) Even bribery seems like something of a stretch—especially if we assume, as we must, that almost every shoe company and every university doing business in the collegiate sports-industrial complex does business in pretty much the same way. How is what Adidas is alleged to have done bribery, and not simply very sharp and competitive negotiating? And why is the federal government spending money to chase this particular rabbit down this particular hole in the first place? Nothing good will come of this. The underground economy of college sports will adapt the way it always does. And the aboveground economy will remain the province of the unindicted sharpers who did such a great job with it in 2008. If Chuck Person goes to jail while those guys walk around free, the country is out of its mind.