New Pressures

The guilty verdicts in the men's basketball corruption trial will rattle the NCAA, athletics experts say.

October 26, 2018
 
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NCAA president Mark Emmert

At the beginning of the year, National Collegiate Athletic Association president Mark Emmert pledged swift changes in men’s basketball after revelations that Adidas executives and coaches in high-profile programs had paid recruits -- in some cases tens of thousands of dollars -- to steer them to certain institutions.

Change did come for the NCAA, with its highest leadership approving reforms designed to punish coaches more severely and watch recruitment more closely -- but Emmert probably couldn’t have anticipated the shifts that took place in the last couple of weeks.

On Wednesday, two Adidas employees and an aspiring agent were found guilty of fraud charges in connection with the payoff scheme. Federal prosecutors successfully argued that universities, namely the University of Louisville and University of Kansas, were victimized. On the surface, that rationale may strike some observers as odd, given that the institutions' teams (and their finances) clearly benefited from these top players. But these universities gave scholarships to ineligible players and now face possible NCAA sanctions, which was enough to persuade jurors that they had been harmed.

The trial, and other recent developments in the big-time sports world, challenge the status quo and leave many athletics experts questioning what the association will do next.

James Gatto and Merl Code Jr., the two former Adidas employees, and the agent, Christian Dawkins, were found guilty on wire fraud charges in a trial that lasted three weeks. Sentencing begins in March, and each is expected to spend several years in prison. Even more significant rulings will come later, when four coaches who were arrested a year ago in connection with the case will go to court, said John R. Thelin, professor of history of higher education and public policy at the University of Kentucky (and an occasional columnist for Inside Higher Ed). This will have implications for other coaches, athletics directors and university presidents.

“A principle of leadership and organizations is that ultimately a leader should know and be responsible for what goes on, especially with important programs and units,” Thelin said. “I think this holds for universities. Intercollegiate sports programs, especially in the Power Five conferences, are sufficiently visible and significant that it’s fair and right to expect a coach, an athletics director and a president -- and the Board of Trustees-- to know. If college sports are, indeed, the ‘front porch’ of the university, all those high-profile and highly paid leaders are responsible and should know. No excuses.”

Observers said the proceedings laid bare an open secret: the influence of apparel companies in the high-profile sports of football and men's basketball, and how common these payments have been (at least among elite players). A father of one player testified how his son was essentially in a shadowy bidding war among many universities before landing at Louisville, The Washington Post reported.

And institutions did profit off these players. Data suggest that athletic donations often jump and admissions spike when universities perform well athletically. Ultimately, though, they could face financial penalties, scholarship reductions from the NCAA and the embarrassment of vacating earlier games, said Josephine R. Potuto, former member of the NCAA Division I infractions committee and Richard H. Larson Professor of Constitutional Law at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.

“It’s a black eye for a university when it’s involved with a major case like this,” Potuto said.

How the NCAA will punish universities caught up in the payoff scandal remains to be seen. Among the package of reforms the NCAA approved this year, which came from a commission led by former Stanford University provost and U.S. secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, is a new bylaw that would allow the association to use information at these trials to investigate and sanction the institutions.

The NCAA’s enforcement arm has relied on outside information before; Potuto noted that association leaned on a university-commissioned report in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill academic fraud case, and depended on an outside investigation in the Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse case at Pennsylvania State University. But this new rule makes that power explicit.

NCAA critics have also questioned if the association even has the teeth to punish major programs anymore; it declined to sanction UNC despite overwhelming evidence that its faux classes mostly benefited athletes. Whether it will pursue punishments against multiple major programs remains to be seen, as some skeptics say that doing so would hurt NCAA revenues. Potuto, however, said that when she was a part of the NCAA's system for adjudicating athletic misbehavior, the association never hesitated simply because it was coming down on one of the major money generators for the NCAA.

Jon Solomon, editorial director with the Aspen Institute's Sports and Society Program, said the trial bizarrely represents a win for the NCAA. While it does demonstrate that the association has historically been incapable of enforcing its rules, the verdict could deter other coaches. (Both he and Potuto also said that it was unusual that violations of NCAA rules were ultimately considered a federal crime.)

“Paying players is a cost-benefit analysis by coaches,” Solomon said. “You’re rarely caught by the NCAA, and if you are, the penalties only go so far as you lawyer up. But time in prison? That’s serious.”

Also days before the verdict, the National Basketball Association announced it would rework its minor league, the G League, to create a “comprehensive professional path” for high school graduates to play immediately after leaving school and be paid $125,000. The NBA has clung to an explicit rule that players can't enter the league until they've been out of high school for at least a year.

This was a clear attempt to mitigate the “one-and-done” phenomenon in which players sometimes enter college for a single season before departing for the professional league. It’s unclear how many players would take advantage of this new path, as experts do not predict a mass exodus from colleges. In one particularly prominent case, a top prospect, Darius Bazley, withdrew from Syracuse University to play in the G League, then instead took an internship with the New Balance apparel company worth at least $1 million.

Thelin, of the University of Kentucky, said he favors allowing high schoolers to pursue any route they wish after graduation.

“For many decades, it was quite all right and acceptable for high school seniors to sign professional baseball contracts the day after high school graduation,” he said. “Why not the same for aspiring professional basketball players?”

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