Federal trial pulls back curtain on basketball recruiting
The curtain to college basketball’s worst-kept secret pulled back even more in a New York federal court last week, revealing a shady world of bagmen, secret payments and bags of cash.
New allegations were made and more programs ensnared as witnesses took the stand in the trial of an Adidas executive and two others facing wire fraud and corruption charges.
As the trial moves forward, the behind-the-scenes view into the black-market world of youth and college basketball will likely cast an even wider net, each day of testimony leaving athletic departments across the country wondering if their program will be next.
“You can rest assured there will be a few coaches sweating this trial out,” former LSU coach Dale Brown said.
The trial stems from an FBI investigation into the seedy side of college basketball recruiting. Ten people, including four assistant coaches at prominent programs, were arrested in September 2017, accused of funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars in shoe-company money to top recruits to influence their choice of schools, agents and apparel companies.
Former Adidas executive James Gatto, former AAU coach Merl Code and aspiring agent Christian Dawkins are standing trial in the Manhattan federal court, accused of plotting to pay $100,000 to the family top recruit Brian “Tugs” Bowen Jr.
Prosecutors have portrayed the schools as the victims, at risk of NCAA sanctions and the loss of millions of dollars in the pay-for-players schemes. Defense attorneys placed the blame on the schools for a win-at-all-costs mentality while trying lure top recruits, countering that only NCAA rules were broken, not federal laws.
“This is what corruption in college basketball looks like,” U.S. Attorney Eli Mark said in his opening remarks. “When you lie, cheat and deceive in order to get a college to issue financial aid, that is a crime.”
Paying top recruits has long been college basketball’s dirty little secret, but only in a handful of cases had it been exposed. The federal probe, with the heft of wiretaps, subpoenas and threat of jail time, allowed investigators dig into places the NCAA cannot.
Testimony during the trial has shed more light on the dark underbelly of recruiting, sounding at times like a movie plot as one bagman-turned-witness described an envelope full of cash and Bowen’s father nonchalantly discussed paying for his son’s services as if it were a normal part of the process.
“Tugs was one of the top players in the country,” Bowen Sr. testified. “Every shoe company wants good players on their teams.”
Bowen Sr. outlined the range of potential payments offered by schools: $50,000 from Arizona, $100,000 from Creighton, $150,000 from Oklahoma State. He said there was interest from Oregon, which had previously not been linked to the corruption, and that Texas could help him with housing.
Bowen Sr. also outlined a cash payment from an Adidas representative at an AAU event, money to switch AAU teams and for a car.
Bowen Jr. ended up at Louisville, where already-embroiled-in-scandal coach Rick Pitino was fired, before transferring to South Carolina. Bowen Jr. was never cleared to play college basketball and pursued a professional career in Australia.
“Obviously, if you’re a cheater you’re going to just cheat,” Brown said. “We can’t just blame the kids for taking stuff. For a coach to buy somebody, barter somebody or use them is totally unacceptable. I think the percentage who do that is low, but they say if one does it, it’s too much.”
The NCAA ratified a reform package in August to address the issues raised by the FBI case, including stiffer penalties for rules violations, allowing players to work with an NCAA-certified agent while testing the NBA draft waters and changes to recruiting evaluations.
Any NCAA investigations and action against rule-breaking programs likely will not come until after the federal trials, which may not be until next summer, so the 2018-19 season may play out before any sanctions hit.
“Is anything going to change? I don’t know,” Brown said. “I’m hopeful, but it’s been a long, slow process. The organization is making improvements, but needs revamping.”