As NCAA's Big Dance rolls, feds take court, too

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News
ESPN reported Arizona coach Sean Miller was caught on wiretap discussing a payment to a recruit. He strongly denied the report.

Detroit — This time, when money allegedly finances activity in college basketball in violation of rules set for coaches and players, the lead investigators are not from the NCAA.

The allegations do not result from efforts by the association to enforce rules intended to preserve the residue of amateurism.

This time, the feds are on the case.

The United States Attorney and the top financial crime investigators the U.S. Department of Justice normally assigns to the Southern District of New York, which includes Manhattan, are investigating alleged violations of federal fraud statutes.

In an indictment of 10 defendants in November, federal officials alleged coaches took bribes from business managers and advisers to direct players and their families to the managers and advisers, and that money from an apparel company paid for players to attend specific schools.

The feds say they have electronic surveillance of criminal acts, and they are still digging.

But will it make any difference?

When the opening rounds of the men’s NCAA Tournament are next played in Little Caesars Arena in 2021, will there be less money under the table and more above?

Will there be any changes in the ways players are recruited and supported by programs and institutions?

The coming months will determine much.

Experts, long-time observers of college athletics and participants say the federal investigation must reveal significant corruption before the NCAA adopts meaningful reform, or before the public thinks it matters enough to affect interest.

“This has been going on forever, quite frankly,” said David Ridpath, professor of sports administration at Ohio University who is widely published on issues of NCAA enforcement. “This sort of activity is not mystery to anyone of us who worked in the business or followed it for long enough.

“It’s just been kind of hear no evil, see no evil.

“What you have now, however, is an entity that has no self-interest to protect and that can actually go out and expose some of these things.

“I think once all is said and done, here, we are going to see a lot of detail about the underpinnings of college basketball. It isn’t pretty.

“I am cautiously optimistic that this will be a catalyst to potentially reform college sports, in the way it should be.”

Time will tell if federal law-enforcement develops enough evidence to garner convictions. Fostering reform in the NCAA may require more than that.

And whether it ever draws the attention of the public to the need for more equitable, transparent arrangements seems at longer odds.

“I think it would take a pretty widespread demonstration on the evidence that the FBI collects that this stuff is so prevalent that it is just undeniably unfair, that is when I think things can change,” said John Affleck, the Knight Chair in Sports Journalism and Society at Penn State and director of the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism.

“If it’s something less than that, it’s easy to say it’s not my school. Or they are wrong about our school.”

On September 26, the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the FBI in Manhattan announced the indictments and arrests of four assistant coaches, three athlete advisors, a senior executive of Adidas and two people affiliated with the company.

Weeks later, Yahoo! Sports reported that based on viewing FBI files, the activity alleged in the indictments is widespread in the NCAA. More indictments seem possible.

Mark Emmert

NCAA executive director Mark Emmert appointed The Commission on College Basketball on Oct. 11. He named Condoleezza Rice, the former secretary of state, the chairperson.

Another member has vast experience in intercollegiate athletics as an academic administrator and university president, Mary Sue Coleman, the former president at Michigan.

Emmert called for “substantive changes to the way we operate.”

“We must take decisive action,” he said, perhaps affecting eligibility rules and the NBA. “This is not a time for half-measures or incremental change.”

In an interview with CBS, which, along with Turner, paid $8.8 billion in 2016 for an eight-year extension to broadcast the NCAA Tournament through 2032, Emmert said it is critical to have reforms in place before next season. But demonstrations of the need for reform are replete in NCAA history.

Two decades ago, booster Ed Martin allegedly loaned a total of $616,000 to the Michigan basketball players while allegedly offering money for the services of Mateen Cleaves, a future Michigan State star.

Three decades ago, Dwane Casey, an assistant coach at Kentucky, sent $1,000 to a Wildcats recruit, Chris Mills. Five decades ago, the NCAA determined a booster raised money for players to attend Southwestern Louisiana University.

Along the way, Sonny Vaccaro, a schoolteacher who organized high-school all-star games in the 1970s, landed a gig at Nike and launched the concept of giving college coaches free shoes in return for using their players’ feet as billboards.

More unregulated money flowed.

“What Emmert did was create a commission, and Condoleezza Rice agreed once again to bail out a sports organization,” Affleck said. “It will be interesting to see how far that commission goes in terms of what’s equitable. There’s a lot of things you can do that are not straight out salary for players that have not been put on the table yet.”

A greater delineation of the unsanctioned financial relationships among companies, agents, advisers, coaches, teams and institutions may help marshal reform.

The feds are at work, in New York. With the power of subpoena and prosecution, prosecutors and FBI agents can force testimony.

But convictions in court are not reform on the court.

“In terms of whether that transforms into a more equitable system for the athletes to get appropriate compensation, whatever that turns out to be, is kind of another question,” Affleck said. “The NCAA has a vested interest in doing whatever it takes to keep the Tournament running.”

The story the feds are telling, so far, is raw.

“Coaches at some of the nation’s top programs taking cash bribes, managers and advisors circling blue-chip prospects like coyotes, and employees of a global sportswear company funneling cash to families of high-school recruits,” said Joon Kim, acting U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, in announcing the indictments. “For the 10 charged men, the madness of college basketball went well beyond the Big Dance in March.”

The Yahoo! Sports reports suggest the feds might have only just begun.

“An FBI investigation that essentially shows that we are essentially pimping and prostituting kids could be a catalyst for change.” Ridpath said.

“Do I have a lot of faith it’s going to change? It’s a little more muted. But this is one of the best opportunities we have had, for change.”