Black Eye for College Basketball

Bribery and corruption charges against four coaches and high-level executives underscore -- again -- the big money and the influence of corporations in recruiting, and may be another external blow to college sports.

September 27, 2017
 
Acting U.S. Attorney Joon H. Kim announces the charges.

Ten people, including four coaches who work for some of college basketball's most prominent programs, face federal fraud and corruption charges for an alleged scheme to direct athletes to certain institutions and agents in exchange for thousands of dollars’ worth of bribes.

College sports experts and ethicists say the Federal Bureau of Investigation inquiry marks a historic moment in the landscape of men’s basketball and is the latest in a series of outside pressures -- a push for athlete unionization and pay, antitrust lawsuits -- that could threaten the reputation of big-time college sports and further undermine support for its amateur status.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association, which according to prosecutors was unaware of the inquiry, lacks the manpower and the will to radically alter the current system, which is lucrative for colleges, television networks and many other parties, experts say.

“I think this truly shows real inability of the NCAA to police college athletics. I think most everyone knew this was going on,” said Dave Ridpath, president of ethics watchdog the Drake Group, referring to widespread and surreptitious payments to athletes and coaches. “It probably wouldn’t take a lot of work to uncover.”

The United States attorney’s office in New York on Tuesday announced the charges against four assistant or associate coaches: Lamont Evans of Oklahoma State University, Emanuel Richardson of the University of Arizona, Tony Bland of the University of Southern California and, most notably, Chuck Person of Auburn University -- a former National Basketball Association star and coach.

All four coaches were either suspended or placed on leave by their universities.

Three representatives of Adidas, including the high-ranking director of global sports marketing, were also named in the complaint, as were three financial advisers and athletics managers. Adidas was not identified by name in court documents.

In a press briefing Tuesday, Joon H. Kim, acting United States attorney for the Southern District of New York, detailed two complex arrangements. One involved Adidas executive James Gatto and others helping facilitate six-figure payments to the families of high school basketball recruits in exchange for the recruits' commitment to play at college basketball programs sponsored by Adidas, and for the athletes agreeing to sign endorsement deals with Adidas once they turned professional.

One athlete was allegedly paid $150,000, another $100,000.

This occurred with at least three recruits, who in turn pledged to two colleges not named in court papers, but that are widely reported to be the University of Louisville (already on NCAA probation) and the University of Miami. Enrollment numbers and other descriptors listed in court filings match those institutions, and both have deals with Adidas.

Statements From Universities

Louisville: "Today, the University of Louisville received notice that it is included in a federal investigation involving criminal activity related to men’s basketball recruiting. While we are just learning about this information, this is a serious concern that goes to the heart of our athletic department and the university. U of L is committed to ethical behavior and adherence to NCAA rules; any violations will not be tolerated. We will cooperate fully with any law enforcement or NCAA investigation into the matter."

Miami: "The University of Miami is aware of the indictments handed down today by the Department of Justice involving several men’s college basketball programs, coaches, financial advisers, agents and apparel executives. As we are just learning the details, we cannot comment on the actions taken today by federal authorities. However, if requested, we will cooperate in any legal or NCAA review of the matter."

Oklahoma State: "Based on the serious and troubling allegations in the complaint, Oklahoma State University has suspended assistant coach Lamont Evans. We are cooperating with federal officials. We have been in contact with the NCAA and will provide additional information as it becomes available. OSU takes seriously the high standards of conduct expected in our athletic department and does not tolerate any deviation from those standards."

Southern California: "This morning we were surprised to learn of the FBI investigation and arrest of USC basketball assistant coach Tony Bland. After [USC learned] of these allegations, Bland was placed on immediate administrative leave. USC places the highest priority on athletic compliance and is taking this situation very seriously. Accordingly, we have hired former FBI director Louis J. Freeh, and his firm, Freeh Group International Solutions, to work with us in conducting an internal investigation into this matter so that we can take action quickly and appropriately. This morning, we reached out proactively to both the NCAA and the FBI to pledge our full cooperation and to learn more details. Everyone associated with the program will cooperate fully with these investigations and will assist authorities as needed."

Auburn: "This morning’s news is shocking. We are saddened, angry and disappointed. We have suspended Coach Person without pay effective immediately. We are committed to playing by the rules, and that’s what we expect from our coaches. In the meantime, Auburn is working closely with law enforcement, and we will help them in their investigation in any way we can."

Arizona: "We were made aware of the Department of Justice's investigation this morning and we are cooperating fully with the FBI and the U.S. attorney's office. Men's basketball assistant coach Emanuel Richardson was immediately suspended and relieved of all duties. We were appalled to learn of the allegations, as they do not reflect the standards we hold ourselves to and require from our colleagues. The University of Arizona has a strong culture of compliance and the expectation is we follow the rules."

In return for cash, the coaches also allegedly persuaded athletes to hire certain financial managers and advisers, such as Christian Dawkins, a former NBA agent cited in the complaint who was recently fired from his agency after he charged $42,000 in Uber rides to an NBA player’s credit card.

During the news conference Tuesday, Kim quoted coaches bragging about their influence over players.

"The picture painted by the charges brought today is not a pretty one,'' Kim said. "Coaches at some of the nation's top programs soliciting and accepting cash bribes. Managers and financial advisers circling blue-chip prospects like coyotes. And employees of one of the world's largest sportswear companies secretly funneling cash to the families of high school recruits."

Tuesday's revelations were the latest to expose the influence of apparel companies in the college sports landscape. Several international shoe and sportswear companies -- Nike and Under Armour, in addition to Adidas -- pay tens of millions of dollars a year to equip (and, from a marketing standpoint, align themselves) with major university programs. For nearly 30 years, books such as Raw Recruits and Sole Influence have documented the leverage companies have on recruitment and players' choices as early as middle school.

No head coaches were charged Tuesday. Per a transcript of recorded comments by Dawkins, he said head coaches "ain’t willing to [take bribes], ’cause they’re making too much money." Despite a handful of recent cases to the contrary, assistant coaches have historically been likeliest to do the dirty work that gets NCAA sports programs in trouble, even though critics often believe that the aides are acting with the implicit support of -- if not under outright pressure from -- their bosses, the head coaches.

Ridpath, of the Drake Group, called the scandal a “wake-up call” for the public and said these types of issues pervade men’s basketball -- they are “systemic and endemic,” he said. Ridpath said external sources, such as federal officials -- Congress -- and sports fans need to apply pressure and push for major reforms, because the NCAA will not.

NCAA President Mark Emmert released a statement Tuesday. "The nature of the charges brought by the federal government are deeply disturbing," he said. "We have no tolerance whatsoever for this alleged behavior. Coaches hold a unique position of trust with student athletes and their families and these bribery allegations, if true, suggest an extraordinary and despicable breach of that trust. We learned of these charges this morning and of course will support the ongoing criminal federal investigation."

American Council on Education President Ted Mitchell said in a statement that the allegations, if proven, would be among the most egregious to affect colleges and universities in recent memory.

"If true, I am confident the institutions and the NCAA will promptly take the strongest possible action," Mitchell said.

Preserving the amateurism of college sports and a paycheck for athletes have both been contentiously debated. The NCAA charter stipulates athletics be subordinate to the educational mission of an institution, but with its drain on many colleges’ finances and sports dominating campus culture, some have questioned whether college athletics should shift to a semi-pro model.

Similarly, players can rake in millions of dollars for an institution and serve as high-profile figures in the sports world, but they can never be considered employees, with the protections that would come along with that designation.

Andrew Zimbalist, chairman of the department of economics and a professor of economics at Smith College, said that while this will make the NCAA squirm and perhaps increase the momentum for changes, the association has survived more damaging situations.

Zimbalist said that he would push for athletic directors and coaches to be limited in their salaries, because those at the top are sometimes paid as much as those in the professional leagues. He called it an “absurd contradiction” that college athletics is still considered amateur but the coaches are paid so highly.

Many basketball coaches nationwide will likely sweat over the investigation, said Jon Solomon, editorial director of the Aspen Institute’s Sports and Society Program, who also favors pay for athletes.

He said no one was surprised by this, and noted that the FBI had set up a tip line, likely leading to the exposure of more corruption. Solomon said he would be interested in which coaches and managers would rat on the others to avoid jail time and whether institutions would cut ties with those who were implicated in this type of crime.

“This is just the start,” Solomon said.

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