Last week, a poorly-held secret was shouted from the rooftops: Amateurism — the “bedrock principle of college athletics and the NCAA” — is a farce.
The first FBI trial against corruption in college basketball proved that nobody is following amateurism rules to the letter of the law, anyway. And a new program established by the NBA that will allow top prospects to skip NCAA play altogether is threatens to further erode what is left of amateurism’s foundation.
In New York, Christian Dawkins, who at one time was an aspiring sports agent; former Adidas consultant Merl Code; and Adidas executive James “Jim” Gatto were all on trial, charged with wire fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud. Both the litigants and the prosecutors agreed that the three men had funneled money to the families of coveted college basketball prospects in order to entice them to attend college at schools with sports programs sponsored by Adidas.
The prosecution said that the schools in question — N.C. State, Louisville, Kansas, and Miami — were the victims of this fraud because the payments made the players ineligible to play, due to NCAA rules. The defense team, however, argued that the breaking of an NCAA bylaw is not the same as breaking a federal law, and that the defendants didn’t deserve to serve federal prison time just because they found ways to eschew amateurism and provide a handful of elite college athletes with some money.
How the jury ultimately decides the case remains to be seen — their deliberations begin on Monday morning. But no matter what happens, the message is clear: This so-called “corruption” is happening. Everywhere.
This is not an exaggeration. A single text exchange — a piece of featured evidence in the trial, as Dan Wolken of USA Today reported — demonstrated how common these practices are. The text conversation in question — between University of Kansas head mens’ basketball coach Bill Self and former Adidas consultant Thomas “T.J.” Gassnola — took place on September 19, 2017, right after Kansas and Adidas agreed to terms on a new $191 million apparel deal.
After Gassnola thanked Self for helping complete the deal, Self responded “Just got to get a couple real guys,” seemingly referring to recruits.
Gassnola texted back: “In my mind, it’s KU, Bill Self. Everyone else fall into line. Too (expletive) bad That’s what’s right for Adidas basketball. And I know I’m right. The more you have lottery picks and you happy. That’s how it should work in my mind.”
Self responded: “That’s how (it) works. At UNC and Duke.”
Gassnola answered that it works that way at Kentucky, too.
“I promise you I got this,” he texted Self. “I have never let you down. Except (Deandre Ayton). Lol. We will get it right.”
That’s just how it works. At UNC. At Duke. At Kentucky. Is this definitive proof? Of course not. But at some point, you have to stop kidding yourself. Of course this is how it works.
During the trial, the head coaches who were a topic of conversation throughout the proceedings — big names such as Self, Louisville’s Rick Pitino, Miami’s Jim Larranaga, and Arizona’s Sean Miller — weren’t heard from directly, and all of them were able to maintain some level of plausible deniability in the scheme, at least as far as the letter of the law was concerned.
Nevertheless, it remains impossible to believe that the most powerful people in college basketball are completely ignorant about these arrangement. After all, the people who work directly under them sure are integral parts of the farce. For example, Gassnola — a key witness for the prosecution — testified he gave former North Carolina State assistant Orlando Early $40,000 at Early’s request, to give to the family of then-recruit Dennis Smith Jr. In another instance, Brian Bowen Sr. — the father of top recruit Brian Bowen Jr. — testified that former Louisville assistant Kenny Johnson personally gave him $1,300. Johnson is now at La Salle.
It was further revealed that Gassnola made payments to Kansas recruits Billy Preston ($89,000), Silvio De Sousa ($2,500) and target Deandre Ayton ($15,000).
This is only a tip of the iceberg; similar revelations came to light throughout the two-week trial. (If you are actually interested in getting into the nitty gritty details of this trial, check out Dan Wetzel’s archive over at Yahoo for a masterclass.)
But honestly? It’s difficult to focus on the petty details revealed in the trial testimony, because the fact of the matter is that it’s really not all that appalling. None of this is scandalous. It’s simply a matter of common sense: Of course these players got money under the table. Of course the schools and coaches and agents and sponsors were all in on it.
The entire business model of the NCAA centers around convincing players they don’t have any power. But they do, and sports agents and sponsors understand this. And even if the coaches at these big time college basketball programs would be loath to admit it outright, they nevertheless know the score.
Now that the players are starting to realize it as well, this is potentially the beginning of the end for amateurism in college sports.
This week, Ohio State defensive end Nick Bosa, a potential top pick in the 2019 NFL, announced that he was ending his Ohio State career early to rehab an injury and prepare for the draft. He could potentially have gotten healthy in time to play in the college football playoffs, or a bowl game. However, it wasn’t worth risking further injury that would hurt his ability to make money in the future, something that the NCAA’s amateurism policy has prevented him from doing (at least openly) up to this point. While a top player announcing a decision like this so early in the season is unprecedented, this does follow a recent trend of elite college football players sitting out bowl games so that they don’t risk an injury that would impact their NFL draft status.
And in college basketball, players now have a domestic option that will allow them to skip March Madness and the NCAA’s amateurism nonsense altogether. On Wednesday, the NBA’s developmental league, the G League, announced a new “professional path” for highly-touted NBA prospects who are at least 18 years old, but not yet eligible for the NBA draft. (The league requires that prospects be at least 12 months removed from their high school careers to be considered eligible.)
This new path to professionalism would allow these elite players to earn a salary of $125,000. What’s more, by avoiding the NCAA’s amateurism restrictions, they would be available to sign with an agent and accept sponsorship money right away.
Nothing is going to change overnight, but the NCAA can’t ignore the leaks in the system forever. (They will, of course, try.)
The jury begins their deliberations on Monday morning. There’s still a chance — there’s always a chance — that they could buy the federal government’s theory that the schools are the innocent victims in all of this, and that these men on trial truly deserve to spend years in federal prison.
But that outcome would be a travesty. The only people who deserve punishment right now are the officials at the top of the NCAA whose outdated, oppressive, and nonsensical rules are the entire reason these absurd back-channel deals have to be made.
Amateurism, or whatever is left of it, is dying. If the NCAA wants any control over what happens next, it’s time to step up and be part of the solution.