In a shocking decision that could have wide-ranging implications for the future of college sports, a federal jury in New York found the three defendants in the FBI’s college basketball corruption trial guilty on all counts of wire fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud. This is the cost of doing business with the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).
Essentially, this means that the jurors found the government’s argument to be completely valid in concluding that Adidas executives Jim Gatto and Merl Code, as well as aspiring sports agent Christian Dawkins, were guilty of defrauding the University of Louisville (and, in Gatto’s case, also the University of Kansas) when they arranged to pay the families of top recruits in return for attending those respective schools to play basketball.
These defendants will now serve prison time for their participation in financial arrangements that — while under-the-table in nature — were nevertheless regarded as open secrets by all the parties involved.
Along the way, the jurors’ decision essentially codifies the NCAA’s amateurism scheme by asserting the notion that some of the biggest college sports programs in the country are, in fact, the victims — as opposed to being the beneficiaries — when sports agents and top sponsors pay athletes and their families money as a recruiting tactic.
Confused? Well, you should be. Because the logic is paper thin at its deepest point.
While the NCAA wasn’t technically on trial, the very foundation of its operations — the fact that college athletes cannot receive much in the way of financial compensation beyond a scholarship for the full cost of attendance to the university they attend — was at the heart of the trial. Both the defense and the prosecution agreed that, over time, an underground market had developed for the purpose on funneling elite high-school basketball players to top programs because NCAA amateurism rules prevented them from being paid for their talents.
The prosecution argued that because these payments made these recruits technically NCAA ineligible, it therefore opened up the federally-supported schools to NCAA sanctions. That is to say, the schools themselves were being defrauded.
The defense, however, insisted that such arrangements were an open secret and that the relevant officials from these schools, including prominent assistant coaches, were involved in the arrangements; in other words, the schools were hardly innocent bystanders in the process. Additionally, the defense argued that there was a difference between NCAA bylaws and federal laws.
Somehow, the jury — which was purposefully full of people extremely unfamiliar with college basketball and, for the most part, sports in general — bought the former argument.
According to Yahoo, Gatto is expected to get up to seven years in prison, with Code and Dawkins getting around three years each, though all three men could face much longer sentences. Sentencing is scheduled for March 5. However, all three men are likely to appeal the verdict.
On the surface, this feels like a verdict that strengthens the state of the NCAA, as it should put the fear of god into agents and sponsors who operate in this facilitate such under-the-table deals. And, well, that’s certainly one possible outcome — that the NCAA keeps consolidating its power and growing its influence in perpetuity, and future generations scoff at the mere notion that there used to be a counter-culture movement in favor of paying collegiate athletes actual money.
But, in reality, the NCAA and amateurism are still in a pretty precarious position, and if I were Mark Emmert and the rest of NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis, Indiana, I might hold off on popping the champagne bottles.
First off, there are still two additional trials in this FBI case. In February, former NBA great and Auburn assistant Chuck Person will take the stand in a case focusing on his dealings with Code and Dawkins. Then, in April, three additional former college assistants, Emanuel “Book” Richardson (Arizona), Tony Bland (USC), and Lamont Evans (Oklahoma State), are scheduled to stand trial.
This first case did not provide much shocking information to onlookers familiar with corruption in the college basketball world, but there could be a lot more bad news for the NCAA on the horizon.
Moreover, now that so much of this corruption is on the record, it takes away a lot of the NCAA’s leverage. In a bench trial last month in California, the NCAA argued that it couldn’t pay student-athletes more than a cost of a scholarship, because if it did, then fan interest in college sports would wane. It’s hard to see how can they continue to argue this in good faith. It’s now a matter of public record that this underground economy exists and persists. Unless there’s a massive ratings downturn this college basketball season, it’s going to be hard for the NCAA to keep up the myth that fans will only watch college sports if the athletes are broke.
But more to the point, society is continuing to move in the direction of paying the players. Top college basketball players can now skip the NCAA altogether and play in the NBA’s developmental league, the G League, for a year and $125,000. Top football players are starting to prioritize their health and their draft stock over their allegiance to their respective college football programs.
The jury’s decision in New York on Wednesday was befuddling, and particularly upsetting for Gatto, Code, and Dawkins, three men who were operating within a system that the NCAA both created and from which it benefited. But momentum is building, and not in the direction of the sanctity of amateurism.