Niyo: FBI probe exposes college hoops’ ugly truths

John Niyo
The Detroit News
"These allegations come as a complete shock to me," said Louisville head coach Rick Pitino in a statement released through his attorney Tuesday.

Luck has a funny way of turning when there’s money involved.

So it was a strange mixture of shock and ah-what-took-so-long that greeted Tuesday’s news of a federal investigation that rocked college basketball, with Joon Kim, the acting U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, announcing bribery, fraud and corruption charges that exposed what he described as “the dark underbelly” of the sport.

They do, indeed, as the indictments targeted not just coaches at major Division I programs, but the entire life-cycle of college hoops’ seedier side, from AAU coach to financial advisor to sports agent to prominent shoe-company executive.

And yet for many college basketball fans, the revelations in the charging documents — more than 100 pages full of wiretapped conversations and financial records from an undercover investigation that began in 2015 — simply confirm their worst suspicions.

If there’s a feeling of surprise, it’s probably the same sort that Louisville coach Rick Pitino professed to have when top recruit Brian Bowen, a coveted, 6-foot-7 swingman from Saginaw who’d been heavily recruited by Michigan State, among other powerhouse programs, stunned many by announcing in early June he’d play for the Cardinals.

More:NCAA coaches charged; probe could include Bowen

“We got lucky on this one,” Pitino told a Louisville radio station a few days later. “I had an AAU director call me and ask me if I’d be interested in a player. … I said ‘Yeah, I’d be really interested.’ They had to come in unofficially, pay for their hotel, pay for their meals. We spent zero dollars recruiting a five-star athlete who I loved when I saw him play. In my 40 years of coaching, this is the luckiest I’ve been.”

The Hall of Fame coach probably is feeling otherwise today, as Louisville quickly issued a statement Tuesday acknowledging it is part of the federal investigation. That was obvious even without the school being named in the charging documents, which all but spelled it out in describing at length the alleged plans to funnel $100,000 to “Player-10” to secure his commitment to “University-6,” which came “on or about June 3, 2017, or almost immediately after the illicit bribe scheme set forth herein was agreed to.” Of course, that’s the same day that Bowen announced his college choice.

Not a pretty picture

What this will mean for the Louisville program remains to be seen, though I think even the NCAA might agree these new charges, if proven to be true, should result in the so-called “death penalty.” Consider that less than two weeks after Bowen’s commitment, the NCAA placed the Cardinals on probation and suspended their Hall of Fame coach in the wake of a scandal involving parties with strippers that were organized by a staff member.

What it’ll mean for the sport is a much larger question, though. Because as Kim said at Tuesday’s press conference, “The picture painted by the charges brought today is not a pretty one.” And as FBI assistant director Bill Sweeney cautioned, the investigation is ongoing.

“All of those charged today contributed to a pay-to-play culture that has no business in college basketball,” Sweeney said. “Today’s arrests should serve as a warning to others choosing to conduct business this way in the world of college athletics: We have your playbook.”

That pronouncement undoubtedly has some coaches and administrators shuddering across the country. Just how many, it’s hard to say. But given the minefield that is college basketball’s recruiting landscape, surely there’s another shoe (company) to drop, what with a top Adidas executive, Jim Gatto, and a prominent Florida AAU coach, Brad Augustine, among the 10 men arrested Tuesday.

It’s also worth noting that none of the four assistant coaches arrested Tuesday works for an Adidas-affiliated program. And considering this whole undercover case started with a prominent financial adviser in legal jeopardy who became a cooperating witness — the feds are prosecuting this case, not the feckless NCAA — there’s no telling who might flip now. Or what the FBI’s new tip line might produce in response to Kim’s casual threats Tuesday. (“I think it’s better for you to call us,” he said, “than us to be calling you when we’re ready to charge you.”)

But there are all sorts of ugly truths hidden in plain sight here, even beyond some of the salacious details of coaches soliciting cash bribes and sneaker companies bankrolling the agents and advisors who were “circling blue-chip prospects like coyotes,” as Kim put it.

There’s also this from Christian Dawkins, the disgraced sports agent and ex-AAU coach from Saginaw who is charged with multiple counts of bribery, wire fraud and money laundering. According to the indictment, Dawkins is caught on tape explaining why major-college head coaches don’t get directly involved in the kind of deals he was allegedly brokering. It’s because “they’re making too much money,” he said, according to the FBI. “And it’s too risky.”

Money pipeline

Of course, that’s really what’s at the heart of this case. There’s too much money involved, and not enough of it is going to the workforce generating it. But just as nature finds a way, so does human nature, which is why we’ve got restrictions on capitalism producing ridiculous charges of corruption. And a system that’ll eventually have no choice but to collapse.

In a recent op-ed, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, whose league reported annual revenue of $483.4 million last year, insisted college athletes “are not exploited.” But try telling that to the ones who are destined to make millions as pros but are forced to go to college by the NBA’s draft-eligibility rules. The so-called “one-and-done” rule effectively routes the cash pipeline through the college game, courting the kind of shady transactions uncovered in this FBI investigation.

“Fraud, abuse and corruption of the type alleged in the charges brought today contaminates all that is good and pure around it — and it has no place in college sports,” Kim said Tuesday.

But we all know it has for quite some time, and will continue to as long major-college athletics continues to cling to this archaic notion of amateurism. A recent Wall Street Journal report cited a financial analysis that pegged the value of Ohio State’s football program at $1.5 billion. The NCAA re-upped its TV deal for March Madness with an eight-year, $8.8 billion extension. And just last month, Louisville agreed to a new 10-year, $160 million apparel contract with Adidas.

So should we really be shocked to discover there are six-figure cash payments being arranged on the side? Of course not. Nor should we assume it’s happening at every school, or even most of them. That’s both the good news and the bad in this story: The headlines will sully the entire sport, even as they help clean it up.

Kim was asked about all that Tuesday at the press conference in New York. And while he declined to extend himself beyond the case he’d already laid out, he did offer this thought.

“The message is that if it is pervasive,” he said, “then people should be looking at it.”

They might not have a choice now. Because Tuesday’s bombshell news felt like a game-changer. And with any luck, it will be.