Do you recognize the names James Gatto, Merl Code Jr. and Christian Dawkins? Probably not, I’d guess, even though they were found guilty of wire fraud a couple of weeks ago in the biggest trial in recent memory involving college-sports corruption.
Truth is, though, that their anonymity is the point of this piece. Gatto and Code were low-to-mid-level minions of Adidas, the shoe company, and Dawkins was a wanna be sports agent. They were middlemen in the federal-government-exposed plot to use Adidas money to bribe college-basketball recruits to attend schools whose teams use the company’s gear.
Allegations in the case involved such hoops giants as the U’s of Arizona, Kansas, North Carolina State and Louisville, but except for four hapless assistant coaches, who are supposed to go on trial early next year, no other coaches or other university officials were named in the case, nor were any top execs of Adidas or anyone connected with the NCAA, under whose auspices the collegiate sports-entertainment enterprise proceeds. Assistant coaches almost always take the fall in such matters; it’s part of their jobs and, probably, their job descriptions. The only head coach to be bounced as a result of the revelations was Louisville’s Rick Pitino, and he’d already accumulated a lengthy rap sheet.
When the initial indictments were announced in September, 2017, people close to the case hinted that those were just the tip of an iceberg and that more and bigger charges would follow, possibly involving schools connected with Adidas rivals Nike and Under Armour. More than a year has passed but the smelly old iceberg remains submerged.
More head-scratching still is the theory prosecutors used to justify their actions; namely, that the victims in the case were the universities, the entities that stood to benefit most from the defendants’ schemes. Said Robert Khuzami, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, where the trial was held, “The defendants not only deceived universities into issuing scholarships under false pretenses, they deprived the universities of their economic rights and tarnished an ideal which makes college sports a beloved tradition by so many fans all over the world.” A larger load of manure rarely has been delivered in a single sentence.
It’s no news that our universities can get their way at every governmental level in this land; just about every public official holds a diploma from one or more of them and their loyalty— especially to their sports teams— is de rigueur in matters political. That’s why the NCAA cartel has avoided the Congressional regulation and oversight it richly deserves. That its clout extends to our courts likewise should be unsurprising; judges and lawyers also love their alma maters.
The prosecutions, however, did provide peeks into two of the seamier aspects of big-time college sports, one of which is the black market that exists in the recruiting of prime collegiate prospects. It’s widely assumed that money changes hands before some recruits sign up with good old Enormous U., but the amounts revealed in testimony and documents related to the case still were enough to startle. Brian Bowen Sr., whose son Brian Jr. was a highly prized 2016 basketball prospect, said in court that a coach from Arizona offered his family $50,000 to enroll their son, a Creighton assistant offered $100,000 plus a good-paying job for him, and one from Oklahoma State offered $150,000 in cash, $8,000 for a car and additional money to help buy a house.
Young Bowen eventually signed with Louisville for an under-the-table $100,000 to his dad. He dropped out there after the scandal broke and transferred to South Carolina. He never played at either school and now plays professionally in Australia.
Names of nearly a dozen other players surfaced in the trial as possible bribe recipients, including those of Deandre Ayton, who was the No. 1 choice in the 2018 NBA draft after a year at Arizona, and Zion Williamson, Duke’s new hotshot freshman, but there’s little doubt that the number of players receiving payouts go well beyond those. Many top basketball (and football) prospects around the country know each other from the camps and all-star games they attend, and are in contact via texts and tweets. If Prospect A gets a dollar offer it stands to reason that he’ll clue in his buddy, Prospect B, who then will be expecting the same, or better. And why not?
Also edifying was the attention the trial focused on the links between the Big Three shoe companies and basketball from the schoolboy through the universities levels. The companies sponsor AAU kids’ teams everywhere and seek to ensnare the better prospects from there through their college days and into the pros, where the big endorsement payoffs lie for both .
Shoe money at the college level began flowing in the 1970s, with the coaches as conduits. Those ties remain, and just about every big-time college coach counts considerable shoe dinero in his compensation package. Lately, though, it’s gone far beyond that, as witnessed by the 15-year, $280 million deal Under Armour recently struck with UCLA, the $191 million, 14-year pact Adidas concluded with Kansas, and the $174 million, 15-year arrangement Nike has with Michigan. The NCAA has made noises about limiting shoe-company involvement in college-sports programs, but with sums like those involved it ain’t gonna happen, no way.
One of the amusing parts of the New York trial was testimony that described some U’s as “Adidas schools” and others as similarly bound to Nike and Under Armour. Given the size of their investments, the companies well could seek naming rights, as in, say, the Adidas University of Kansas or the University of Under Armour in Los Angeles. At the least those would have a ring of truth.