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Thoughts on the College Basketball Corruption Trial

Come on! Everybody take a side.

NCAA Basketball: Final Four-Practice Day
Another guy who wouldn’t know nothin’ ‘bout no cheatin’.
Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

Testimony wrapped in the federal government’s trial against Adidas executive James Gatto, business manager Christian Dawkins and former amateur league director Merl Code on Tuesday. The jury heard closing arguments and should be deliberating on Thursday.

The case originated in the U.S. Attorney’s office after a focused FBI investigation. The criminal case asserts that the defendants committed fraud by funneling money to families of top high school basketball prospects in exchange for their commitments to play college basketball at schools affiliated with the Adidas brand. A key component of the government’s case is that the schools and their personnel did not know about the payments, and as a result, accepted players who were no longer NCAA-eligible amateurs. The indictment casts KU, Louisville, and a host of other programs who have been highly successful on the backs of these players as paradoxical “victims” of the scheme.

Testimony has included mentions of the biggest names—coaches, players and colleges—on the NCAA scene. Naturally, since Kansas is the bell cow of the Adidas stable, its name was front-and-center at the trial. Evidence (some admitted, some disallowed) included text messages from Bill Self, recordings of phone calls between assistant coach Kurtis Townsend and Adidas personnel discussing a recruit’s goody-bag wish list, and bizarre assertions of an intimate relationship between admitted bagman T.J. Gassnola and the mother of KU recruit Billy Preston.

It may be a measure of our collective numbness to athletic department shenanigans and the NCAA’s seeming impotency in dealing with them that this was to be a round-table discussion. But only three of us weighed in. Maybe, to some extent, we have given up. I mean, if North Carolina can have bogus degree tracks and suffer zero consequence, what’s the point of rules and oversight?

We’re posting this anyway, because some of you have already expressed opinions. And we invite more discussion. Always.

To be clear, this is not just an Adidas and Kansas issue. Unless this trial ends in abject failure (and it certainly might), the day of reckoning looms for Nike, UnderArmor and their respective university partners, as well. Adidas was just first in line.

The prosecution has not asserted that Kansas or any other school was a party to the scheme. If the schools were in on it, in fact, no crime was committed. Payments, in that case, might be NCAA violations, but not crimes. Criminal fraud requires intent to deceive an innocent party (a rich concept these days, in itself). The defense strategy, therefore, has been to demonstrate that coaches and other athletic department personnel knew exactly what was going on. A related, alternative assertion is that the entire system is corrupt, that literally everyone knows it, and that any “fraud” is merely incidental to business as usual in the NCAA basketball realm.

For the little it is worth, two of the heaviest hitters in the game deny college basketball is dirty. Roy Williams says he is “dumbfounded” to learn that such activities may be going on, because in his 30 years in coaching he has never encountered anything remotely like the conduct alleged in the case. Mike Krzyzewski believes that any pay-to-play is “minute” and a “blip.” Conviction of the defendants would equate, then, to some measure of vindication for the schools and their “blissfully unaware” stance. Acquittal would at least suggest that the schools named in the indictment as “victims” were complicit in a scheme to violate NCAA rules.

On to the discussion points:

How much attention have you paid to the Adidas trial, and how do you expect the jury to rule?

Derek: I have only paid attention to the trial in passing. As many here know, I’m a football guy (although I’m trying to branch out.) Since I haven’t paid much attention, I have no idea how the jury will rule, but I think even if they do rule in favor of the prosecution, the actual effect on the sport and its biggest names will be minuscule at best.

Luke: I have followed news reports as both a legal nerd and a fan with prurient interest in watching the Yankees and Patriots of college sports squirm. The case is making some pretty powerful NCAA figures look either a) sleazy, or b) absurdly, inexplicably ignorant of something most fans have taken for granted for years. The train wreck potential is tantalizing.

I hesitate to bet against the U.S. Attorney’s office and its 90+ percent conviction rate, but I suspect these defendants will walk. Even though the judge excluded evidence that would have made at least a powerful suggestion that coaches at Kansas knew Adidas personnel were funneling money to recruits, I don’t expect it to matter in the end. Most people accept as a truism that coaches know that it takes incentives to get the best players and are actively engaged in the process. No innocent victim = no crime. And I don’t believe many of them are innocent. Or victims. I suspect the jury won’t either.

Jon: I’ve been paying enough attention to know the bullet points, but not enough to be able to come up with a prediction on how it’s going to turn out. I will suggest that it’s probably a crapshoot, but only because much of the time cases like this are just that.

Many college basketball fans have essentially hand-waved the case as not worth the taxpayers’ time and investment. Has it been worthwhile for prosecutors to pursue the case? Why or why not?

Derek: I really don’t think it’s a worthwhile case. I think fraud is a tough thing to prove here, and I’m not really surprised the defense has been able to drag up so much evidence to show that the teams were aware. The defenses assertions of widespread corruption are also obvious. I don’t know enough to say whether any laws were actually broken here, but based on my knowledge, it certainly doesn’t seem as though any damage done by the actions of these people is really “criminal” by the definition of the law. That’s not to say this isn’t still a problem, though, but I’ll get to that.

Luke: I agree with Derek on this. The feds aren’t really protecting any victim here. They are either doing the work that NCAA compliance refuses to do, or engaging in “gotcha” against certain universities or business interests. I suppose if you stretched, you could claim there is a tax evasion link. But that does not seem to have been alleged anywhere. And it seems to me there are greater social ills they could be spending taxpayer resources to address.

Jon: Oh, I think it’s absolutely absurd as a fraud case. A much better case would have been against the entire infrastructure as a tax evasion conspiracy case, as Luke mentions, but that of course means indicting the players too or getting them to testify under immunity. Nobody wants to do that.

Who winds up looking the worst when the case is done?

Derek: This is really the reason I’m even offering thoughts on this. Though I’m not sure these payments actually break any real laws, there’s no doubt there’s cheating here. The legal system of the United States doesn’t really give a crap about cheating in college sports, the level of care among schools depends of course on whether a school benefits, and I think the NCAA only cares from the aspect of vanity. The NCAA has never cared about cheating, as it only upholds the guise of the “student-athlete” ecosystem to insulate itself from the financial demands of a professional sports league.

I think that context is important when asking the question of who ends up looking bad in all of this. Many fans (especially those who read this) will probably glean a high level of satisfaction in the idea that KU was the beneficiary of cheating, and that’s fine. I don’t have anything against anyone who wants to bash KU or any other school for breaking the rules. But I certainly hope any negativity in that regard will be directed at the coaches and school officials, and not the players. I know better. I know sports fans and I know there is a certain breed of sports fan who is going to bash on any player whose name was mentioned in this trial, and that’s unfortunate.

And even though I won’t fault anyone for bashing on coaches and schools, I think our energy is better spent demanding reform of the NCAA. There’s no solution I’ve ever seen suggested that would even come close to making this system fair from either a competition aspect, or in terms of athlete welfare, but this “student-athlete” charade needs to end.

All that is to say, my hope is that the NCAA comes out on the worse end of this, but I doubt that will be the case.

Luke: Everyone will look bad. If I’m right and the government loses the case, it will look as if the U.S. Attorney’s office brought petty and pointless litigation and tried to concoct a crime around the things it found personally objectionable. The schools, coaches and shoe companies will have their reputations bloodied. But really, have you ever respected companies that use third-world sweatshop labor to make overpriced shoes to be endorsed by multimillionaires? Or the NCAA, who has engaged in—at best—selective enforcement of its rules for decades, such that the federal government decided in intervene to shine the light on corruption? Or the specific schools and coaches involved, who are already blessed with advantages from resources to tradition to top coaches but still break the rules to gain even greater advantage?

Krzyzewski may have used the right word about the wrong thing. The case and its repercussions will probably be a blip, no mater how widespread the influence-peddling by shoe companies is. Because nothing is likely to change. I’m not particularly bent about students being able to earn money through their abilities, and if the system makes them do it through illicit means, then the system needs to be altered.

Someone will have to explain to me why the farcical concept of amateurism in mega-dollar college sports is important. From where I sit, it looks like avaricious resource-hording, and nothing else. But it is the system adopted by the NCAA institutions. And I do object that certain coaches and programs who are already blessed with the greatest advantages know that their reputation or importance to the NCAA allows them to cheat with impunity to widen the gap further.

Many of our own commenters have lamented the “atmosphere of compliance” that K-State aspires to, which is to say, some of us are suggesting we are idiots for following the rules. That is the product of indifference to compliance at the top. Ultimately, those who do follow the rules may come out, not looking the worst, but the worst off. They wasted their time following rules that, apparently, nobody cared about.

Jon: I think it’s going to be a black mark against the schools involved for a long time. At the very least, it’s going to be ammunition for message boards and certain journalists to take potshots for years and years to come. The NCAA itself won’t be affected at all, except for the probably cranking up of the volume on the “pay the players” movement.

You know who this is going to be a blip for? The government. Trust me, within a year we’ll have forgotten that they even brought the case except when we’re reminded of it. We’ll remember that Louisville was in bed with Adidas to do Wrong Things, but the fact that the government lost a case about it will be a remote memory.

Coaches at various schools have worked hard to establish plausible deniability. What is your impression of their ignorance-is-innocence claims?

Derek: I’ve already written more than my fair share of words in this round table so I’ll do my best to keep this brief. These coaches know what’s going on, and I doubt they care. The kind of person that can ascend to the highest levels of coaching probably does so in part do to their obsessive need to control, so I’m sure many of them know and perhaps even have a hand in far more than we can even dream.

Luke: The only people who believe that coaches don’t know are willfully ignorant because admitting otherwise would implicate their school, their coaching staff. I mean, we can all agree that Roy Williams and Mike Krzyzewski’s takes are ridiculous. Can’t we? Do I think everyone cheats? No. Do I think lots do? Absolutely. And the coaches are in the middle of it, for sure. Nobody dares risk breaking rules behind the head coach’s back.

Jon: I’m of a different mind on this. I think Williams and Krzyzewski and the like legitimately believe that they get the top talent on their own merits, and that this stuff doesn’t matter at all. And it follows that maybe they don’t have direct knowledge, and therefore they don’t think it’s actually happening because that would in turn imply that they don’t have full control over what’s going on around them.

Or maybe they do know. I’m just offering up the devil’s advocate option for why coaches’ egos might cause them to honestly delude themselves into believing that the sky is not in fact blue.

Is a shadow system of illicit payments to elite players the biggest problem in college basketball? What other issues concern you? How should they be addressed?

Derek: I answered some of this above. It’s absolutely a problem and not just in basketball. Until a system is developed where either schools don’t generate massive amounts of revenue from sports, or a fair amount of that revenue is distributed to the athletes, money will always be a problem in college sports, whether it’s in the form of illicit under-the-table payments or gigantic television contracts.

As I said, there’s no solution I’ve ever seen presented that effectively addresses the complexity of the problem, but we’ve got to start working toward something.

Luke: Big money is a problem that creates the incentive to cheat. Some people think compensating the players will cure whatever ails college sports. It won’t. Even if schools more meaningfully shared the wealth (which they should do), boosters, vendors and gambling interests would still have plenty of reasons to influence the product and the outcome of games. Only we groundlings want a level playing field.

I consider media pundits’ “slave labor” argument hyperbolic, but that doesn’t mean some players aren’t getting a raw deal. For the vast majority of scholar-athletes, the opportunity to play a sport in exchange for a free college education is tremendously valuable. But that assumes (in some cases incorrectly) that the athlete is afforded a meaningful opportunity to achieve his or her goals as a student while providing sports services to their schools. If athletic obligations make that impossible, or if coaching staffs steer players away from pursuing and earning a worthwhile degree, then the players really are getting ripped off, no matter how far down the depth chart they are.

The players at North Carolina who were funneled into bogus classes got nothing of value in return for their services. Yet, after eight years of investigation and UNC voluntarily trashing its own academic reputation to save athletics, the NCAA found no wrongdoing. The NCAA turns its back on so many of its rules. That’s the biggest problem in college sports. It is impossible to guess when the NCAA will enforce its rules, and when it will cover its eyes. The rules should be enforced uniformly, without regard to the name of the school, coach, athlete (*cough, Cam Newton) or event affected by enforcement. If the rules suck, then change them. Too often of late, the NCAA has allowed heinous acts to slide while pouncing on minutiae. Those who follow the rules shouldn’t be the ones looking like saps.

Jon: I am once again sort of in the weeds here. The idealist in me still insists that college is supposed to be about college and athletics are just supposed to be a recreational activity. But I also recognize that this is an ideal which died when Oklahoma won their case against the NCAA, and as a result I absolutely agree in principle that players should be compensated for the revenues they are helping generate.

That said, I also believe that a level playing field is a necessity, and I insist that no matter how much money you allow the players to receive they will always be perfectly willing to take more. The argument that paying the players will eliminate this nonsense is just that: nonsense.

There really is only one solution. The schools which think it’s okay to turn their sports into auction blocks need to either leave the NCAA entirely or form their own division. If that means that the top flight of college football suddenly becomes 38 teams gobbling up every single 4- or 5-star recruit in a massive bidding war while the other 92 FBS teams are left scrabbling for the remains under their “archaic” rules, so be it.

At least then it would all be open and honest. If the Ivies survived their principles, then I guess everyone else can too.

Okay, your turn. Three staffers brought the noise. Let’s hear your take in the comments.