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Merl Code Peels Back the Curtain on College Basketball’s Bribery Scandal

The former Adidas executive sentenced to prison discusses deals with Zion Williamson, Brian Bowen, Anthony Davis and more.

Merl Code is going to federal prison soon. He said he doesn’t know exactly when, or where, and in a philosophical sense he doesn’t even know why. But he’s looking at up to nine months behind bars simply for being a cog in the college basketball underground economy.

“[I was] the bogeyman,” Code told Dan Wetzel and me Monday on our podcast, the College Football Enquirer. “But I wasn’t the bogeyman [federal investigators] wanted. They wanted high-profile names. They wanted Sean Miller. They wanted Will Wade. They wanted Rick Pitino.”

Code did an hourlong interview with us to discuss his riveting new book, Black Market: An Insider’s Journey Into the High-Stakes World of College Basketball, which pulls back the curtain on how the sport operates. Sports Illustrated obtained an advance copy of the work, which includes revelations regarding arrangements made for superstars like Zion Williamson and Anthony Davis, and more detail on the infamous six-figure deal for Brian Bowen to attend Louisville. It’s new information on an old business model, how the sport operated in the margins while staying ahead of NCAA investigators and mocking the frayed concept of amateurism.

NCAA logo on a basketball court

The FBI bribery scandal rocked college hoops in 2017.

“If anyone thinks that there is such a thing as a clean big-time program, they need to wake up and smell the donkey s---,” Code wrote in his book. “Somewhere along the line, even the so-called cleanest of programs has some dirt if you look close enough.”

The FBI investigation of corruption in college basketball broke open more than four years ago with a grandstanding press conference from the U.S. Attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York. That gambit failed to change the sport in any meaningful way, but it did claim a few low-visibility victims who were ensnared by the feds. Code is one.

Along with codefendants Christian Dawkins and Jim Gatto, the 48-year-old former shoe-company executive was found guilty of fraud, conspiracy and bribery charges in 2019. He has exhausted all appeals, so prison awaits for a father and husband, a son of a former judge, a guy who never dreamed that paying young basketball players on behalf of a shoe company could be considered a crime.

Code never believed in NCAA rules that prohibited providing those benefits, and many of those rules have since become obsolete in an era of compensating athletes for their name, image and likeness. But a federal jury determined that Code, Dawkins, Gatto and four assistant coaches all defrauded universities in a scheme that actually was trying to help those schools win basketball games.

“I’m not going to apologize for doing my job and challenging a corrupt system,” he said on our podcast. “I’m just not.”

A few hours before prosecutors held their press conference on the bewildering morning of Sept. 26, 2017, federal agents converged on Code’s front lawn with guns drawn. They handcuffed him and took him to jail. At the time he was an Adidas consultant who helped the brand procure talent for its flagship college basketball programs; previously he had been an executive at Nike in a similar role. The college-educated son of a judge, Code knew just about every rising talent the game has seen in the last 25 years—and suddenly he was being treated like a dangerous criminal.

Eight of the nine men who were charged, found guilty and sentenced in the scandal were Black. None were in high-paying, high-profile jobs. Meanwhile, multimillionaire white head coaches like Bill Self, Pitino, Wade and Miller not only avoided being charged, they successfully avoided being called as witnesses in the two trials. They were in no legal jeopardy and maintained their ability to make big money. Pitino was fired quickly at Louisville but has since resurfaced as the coach at Iona; Miller coached another four seasons at Arizona before being fired; and both Self and Wade have continued their jobs at Kansas and LSU, respectively.

Code and his legal team fought vigorously to introduce evidence at the trials that he says would have directly implicated several head coaches who maintained that they were unaware of any schemes. They sought to have wiretaps and text messages entered into evidence, but presiding judges never ruled in their favor.

Some of that information could be relevant in the ongoing NCAA infractions cases related to the SDNY investigation, as they wallow through the painfully slow college crime-and-punishment process. But Code isn’t interested in helping the NCAA and further exposing Black assistant coaches to scrutiny or sanctions.

He wrote: “If I wanted to, if I REALLY wanted to, I could create a real s---storm in this space by mentioning the names of the coaches, athletic directors and big-time recruits at a number of high-profile universities in the ACC, the Big 12, the Pac 12, the Big Ten, the SEC and other major D-I conferences over the years whose texts, emails and phone conversations were intercepted by the FBI, who the government so deftly kept away from the jury because it exonerated us. But doing that would serve no purpose. I will simply say that a massive amount of evidence was never presented to the jury.”

Code also said that the feds wanted him to cooperate in an effort to ensnare Pitino and other big names. He and Dawkins refused to do so. “Once we weren’t willing to play their game, to wear wires and have our phone calls recorded … I think the focus [of the investigation] then shrunk.”

Code did say that, contrary to Pitino’s stated ignorance of the Bowen deal, the Louisville coach was aware of it. As he wrote in the book, “The gist of the prosecution was that, as it related to me, my actions made Brian Bowen ineligible, thus defrauding the University of Louisville. As a consultant with Adidas, I did not act on my own, nor could I have done so. I simply ran the proposition by my bosses, who did the same after consulting with Rick Pitino, and the answer that came back from up high was, ‘Rick wants our help. Get it done.’”

(Code also said that $100K wasn’t a shocking dollar figure to get the deal done for Bowen, a top-15 national recruit. “In this business, that is not an absurd ask,” he wrote. “Believe it or not, it’s pretty commonplace.” Code estimated that half to three-fourths of the top 50 recruits in a given year are being compensated in some form by agents, shoe companies, college boosters or other third parties.)

One of the transcripts that was entered into evidence at the federal trials was a conversation regarding Williamson between Code and Kansas assistant Kurtis Townsend. Code told Townsend that Williamson’s family was “asking for money in the pocket. And he’s asking for housing for him and his family.” Townsend acknowledged the requests, adding that he would “try to work to figure out a way. Because if that’s what it takes to get him for 10 months, we’re going to have to do it some way. ... I don’t want that to be this deal-breaker, because if that’s what we got to do to get him. …”

Self, like Pitino, has denied any knowledge of a potential deal for Williamson. But Code wrote in his book, “Bill Self was constantly kept abreast from his own coaches and the higher-ups at Adidas in terms of what was happening in the Jayhawks’ pursuit of Zion. It’s all in the transcripts of the intercepted text messages. But again, the jury never saw or heard any of it. Self has subsequently denied any wrongdoing in the matter.

“But the higher-ups at Kansas saw it and heard it. And they swiftly rewarded Bill Self with a lifetime contract, which included a very interesting clause that stated the coach who’d delivered them a national championship in 2008 would not be fired ‘due to any current infractions matter.’”

Of course, Williamson would turn down Kansas and end up at Duke, where he had one of the most impactful single-season college careers in history. That ended a recruitment that Code says had the family accepting benefits from both Nike and Adidas.

Zion Williamson shoots a free throw in practice at Duke

Williamson played one season at Duke before being the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft.

Adidas was working with Williamson’s stepfather, Lee Anderson. But Zion’s mother, Sharonda Sampson, “had worked out a deal for Nike to pay her as a consultant,” Code wrote. “It turns out that Lee was doing the most, but Sharonda had the real juice. And Zion had his own mind. Props to him for that.

“The morning of April 20, 2018 … Clemson got word that Zion would announce that afternoon that he would be officially signing to play for them. A brief moment of euphoria broke out of the hoops offices on campus, where football success had far exceeded basketball in recent years. Maybe Zion was going to change that.

“A few hours later at a press conference at Spartanburg Day, flanked by his mother, stepfather, track-running older brother and baby Noah, Zion reached under the table, pulled out a blue hat and announced to the world, ‘I will be joining the brotherhood of Duke University.’

“When I saw it, I leaned back in my chair and smiled. Well played.”

Code said he doesn’t know how Duke won out. But he did note that the Williamsons—who had been living at extremely modest means when he met them a couple of years earlier, with Anderson even asking for $100 for groceries—moved into a luxury neighborhood in Durham while Zion was in school.

Code gladly supplied the grocery money to Lee Anderson then, just as he jumped in to secure a five-figure payment for Anthony Davis during his one season as a superstar at Kentucky.

Code was in on the ground floor with Davis as a rising phenom in Chicago, getting to know the family well. Code wrote that early in Davis’s time at Kentucky, in the fall of 2011, his father, “Big Ant,” was laid off from his job and the family was financially unstable. Here came Nike to the rescue, via Code.

“When I was on the pro side at Nike, I made numerous trips to Kentucky to see guys like Rajon Rondo, Eric Bledsoe, John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and a few others. I had some solid relationships with folks in Lexington, so the first call I made was to a former assistant athletic director. He was no longer working in that capacity, but he was superconnected to some heavy hitters. …

“He thought on it and came back to me with a creative idea. He knew some guys that ran an apparel shop. ‘What if they created a T-shirt design? Would the family be okay if they got a healthy amount of the profits from the sales, so long as they don’t come back and sue us? We wanna make a play on his unibrow.’”

Shirts were designed and produced, and sales were brisk. “On Dec. 9, my guy in Lexington called me and said, ‘They’ve had some movement, made some sales. They’ve got 10 grand for the family right now. How do you wanna handle it?’ “

The next day, Kentucky was playing at Indiana in a big showdown game. Code says he drove from Chicago to Bloomington, met the assistant athletic director, received an envelope of cash and then delivered it to Davis’s mom before the game.

“These are really good people,” Code wrote. “That kid and his family deserved an opportunity to live without constantly worrying about keeping a roof over their heads and food on the table, especially while AD was generating tens of millions of dollars for everyone except himself. … I have no qualms about what we did to help them. Now, with athletes being permitted to profit off their names, images and likenesses, I actually feel vindicated in helping that family in the way that we did. It was the right thing to do—to hell with what the NCAA would have said at the time.”

Beyond that particular fundraising effort, some competitors in the college basketball world did not like the way Nike catered to Kentucky. Code wrote that he couldn’t much blame them. He recalled one particularly angry call from then Florida coach Billy Donovan.

Code’s recollection of Donovan’s rant: “I’m sick and tired of this bulls---! You motherf----rs keep helping Kentucky! This shit is ridiculous. I’m gonna call [Nike cofounder] Phil Knight personally to talk about this s--- because it’s getting out of hand.”

Code wrote: “I stayed quiet while Billy vented, because I knew there was some truth in what he was saying. With John Calipari getting an overabundance of the top recruits in the country at the time, Florida and every other program were fighting for scraps. One of the worst-kept secrets in the business was Nike’s emphasis on helping Kentucky and Oregon, Phil Knight’s alma mater, with everyone else falling in line after.”

The stress of the Nike job drove Code out of the business for a short period of time. He eventually returned to Adidas, which valued his connections and relationship skills. But before long that led him into the trap set by the FBI.

One jarring morning in the fall of 2017, he opened his front door and faced drawn guns. A guy who prided himself on doing his job was incomprehensibly being told by the cops that elements of the job were considered criminal behavior, and his career started to crumble. Next comes prison for Merl Code.

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