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Will FBI investigation change college hoops?

Will FBI investigation change college hoops?

By Michael Smith, Staff Writer

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College basketball was rocked on Sept. 26 when an FBI undercover investigation over two-plus years resulted in the arrest of four assistant coaches and the likely firing of Louisville coach Rick Pitino, one of the game’s most high-profile coaches. Bribing players with money to attend a certain school has gone on for years, but this case was different. These coaches, agents and financial advisers weren’t just breaking NCAA rules, they were committing criminal acts, according to the FBI, and they could go to jail. The news shook the collegiate world and reinvigorated calls to reform the game on one side, or to start paying the players their market value on the other.

Some of the reporters and analysts closest to college basketball were part of a SportsBusiness Journal roundtable at the Final Four in April, so the latest scandal seemed like an appropriate time to bring them back for a college basketball media roundtable 2.0. Though done on short notice via email, this time they were no less cynical and outspoken about the state of the college game.


O’NEIL: I actually posed that very question to a friend who works in the FBI and her answer was simple: It’s against the law. The law being similar to commercial bribery and the federal interest stemming from the fact that colleges and universities get federal money. My inner Oliver Stone can’t help but think that there’s got to be more, that merely shutting down shady hoops coaches doesn’t merit a two-year investigation and two undercover investigators, but I don’t have any answer as to what the more is.

MEET THE PANEL OF EXPERTS:

Paola Boivin: Arizona State University / Arizona Republic; @PaolaBoivin
■ Chuck Culpepper: Washington Post; @ChuckCulpepper1
■ Len Elmore: CBS / ESPN; @LenElmore
■ Pat Forde: Yahoo Sports; @YahooForde
■ Dana O'Neil: The Fieldhouse, TheAthletic.com; @DanaONeilWriter
■ Dan Wolken: USA Today; @DanWolken
FORDE: It is illegal and it seems like it was quite “get-able” for them with a willing informant. And the rather dramatic U.S. Attorney’s presentation tells me that they didn’t mind the idea of a splashy case that brought them a lot of attention.

 WOLKEN: It’s something I’ve questioned myself. Obviously, I can understand what [the others asked here] said about “It’s against the law” and they had an entrance into this arena due to the informant. And rooting out corruption of a public institution like college athletics certainly makes for good headlines. I have to wonder whether there’s an element of this targeted at shoe companies, which are multibillion-dollar international corporations that have long been engaging in these shady practices at the grassroots level. How closely are Nike, Adidas, Under Armour, etc., really monitoring the flow of money that has been spent to build and maintain their grassroots divisions? If there’s nothing more to it, it sure seems like the FBI put a lot of time and energy into bringing down a few assistant coaches.

BOIVIN: Bribery and mail fraud in the context of sports is a language a mass audience can understand. The feds knew they would have the public’s attention.

ELMORE: Public corruption in any phase, and particularly in interstate commerce, seems to be of particular interest to the Department of Justice through its U.S. Attorneys. I was a prosecutor in Kings County (Brooklyn), N.Y., and the public trust was high on the list of protected foundations of a democratic society, even on the state and county level. In this case, the bribery, mail and wire fraud and honest services deprivation make solid headlines and serve as a deterrent in an industry. College basketball recruiting was always suspected of operating crookedly, but in full view. Remember, these prosecutors and FBI agents went to colleges where they played or rooted for their alma maters. This may be their way of trying to restore confidence that the system and games are legitimate and reduce exploitation of the student athletes.

CULPEPPER: By the sounds of their righteous trash talk from the New York dais — “We have your playbook … better for you to be calling us, than for us to be calling you” — it seemed they might have stumbled across a batch of hustlers rich in hubris and entitlement, and found that little in life is more exhilarating than exposing a batch of hustlers rich in hubris and entitlement. I had never even considered the notion that these time-honored traditions of big-time college sports violated more than NCAA law but also actual United States law, and it’s compelling to think this had not occurred to coaches, either.

 ELMORE: Victimless? No, the victims are the fans and public trust in the fairness of college basketball, the other institutions that conducted themselves ethically and adhered to the rules, the shareholders in the guilty shoe companies and, in a strange way, the student athletes, especially the ones who took the money. Their character and reputations, and that of their accomplice family members, suffer spiritually and morally. I don’t buy that these folks were “pressured.” They were conscious of its wrongfulness and made a choice. It’s like saying the bank robber was pressured because the money was sitting in the open vault.

BOIVIN: I always think of that Maya Angelou quote, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” Sorry, call me an apologist but I can’t help but feel there are a few 17-year-old recruits in this mess who really believe this is how the world of college sports operates. They have been treated a certain way all their lives, and some with very little understanding of real world mechanisms. College basketball fans are victims, too. This is our escape world. Now it’s tainted.

CULPEPPER: I see multiple victims: Fans who pay the bills, any non-cheating programs, young players used by elders, taxpayers.

Joon Kim, acting U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, details the criminal case.
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WOLKEN: At the end of the day, these are all business deals. And if you don’t have sunlight on those deals, they will inevitably trend toward corruption, resulting in various levels of victims. Strictly confined to the sport of college basketball, careers can be determined by winning or losing one big recruiting battle. And if that battle is won by which party goes beyond the bounds of the rules, I would say there’s absolutely a victim.

O’NEIL: The first people I think of as “victims” are the wives and families of the people who could face multiple years in federal prison. Your partner goes to work as a basketball coach. How in the world do you foresee this? I think the sport is a victim, its reputation at least. But I’m not sure if it will suffer. I don’t see a mass exodus at arenas or any real dent to the pocketbook, just more the whiff of scandal that will follow. I do not, unlike the U.S. Attorney, see the athletes or their families as victims. Chuck Person is quoted as telling a parent and a recruit that “this is a violation,” and there is no way that a single parent or prospect didn’t know what they were doing was wrong. Between the summer leagues and high school information, they absolutely know what the NCAA rules are. They knowingly and willingly broke them to earn their “market value.”

FORDE: If players are being told where to go to school or who will be their agent because adults are being paid, there is a victim.

BOIVIN: What other head coaches are involved?

ELMORE: How far are prosecutors willing to take this case? Will they simply follow whatever trail is set for them by those already arrested and cooperating or will they use those leads to establish and chase down more leads, including indicting high-visibility names, all resulting in cutting the heart out of the corrupt practices and thereby establishing a new beginning and good name in college sports recruiting.

WOLKEN: Are those wiretapped conversations eventually going to be made public? That will be fascinating.

O’NEIL: Going back to the original question, why did the FBI dig in on this? So Martin Blazer offered them information if they’d reduce his penalty, but why did locking up a bunch of basketball coaches appeal to the federal government? There was definitely a dog-and-pony show aspect to the press conference, so the cynic in me can’t help but think the positive PR was good. And my gut — with absolutely zero proof — wonders if someone in the NCAA asked for an assist since they couldn’t do the job.

FORDE: The big one and the obvious one: How far will it go? In talking to people in the sport, I’ve had estimates that as many as 100 coaches could be caught up in this thing before it’s over — and that it may not be over for 3-4 years. If that’s the case, can the sport survive as a popular mainstream entity? Or will its credibility be so decimated that we don’t recognize the place? I’ve heard jokes about a 32-team tournament because everyone else will be serving a postseason ban.

CULPEPPER: Will this extend into some places that are widely seen as sacrosanct, such as doing things, to use a dreadful phrase, “the right way?”

FORDE: It could substantially change college basketball, if this goes as widespread as expected. All options should be on the table, including (name, image and likeness rights for players) and pay-for-play. A smaller potential change: Do away with one-and-done and let kids go pro straight out of high school again. That would obviously require the help of the NBA, but the NCAA should push that hard.

CULPEPPER: Are we going to look back at our old under-the-table market and say “Aw, it wasn’t so bad?” I’ve just been in downtown Louisville, where people worry about the businesses in the Yum Center ecosystem. Do the economics that surround a successful program tilt the current system toward being acceptable? Are we going to say there was even some justice that flowed when the money flowed? … The concept of athletes being “unpaid” does not count as a tragedy. College athletes still receive valuable things for their toil. Yet the system in place remains un-American, market-wise, and the market itself went underground trying to correct that.

O’NEIL: I don’t see pay-for-play as a solution. So we pay athletes $100,000. What’s to stop them from asking for another $50,000 on the side? Where’s the salary cap, so to speak, and how is it enforced? As to changing the sport, my inner cynic can’t help but think that Myron Piggie didn’t change the sport. Ed Martin didn’t change the sport. Richard “The Fixer” Perry didn’t change the sport. People will pause, maybe, but for it to really make a difference some major changes have to take place. The NCAA has to come up with a more meaningful punishment for coaches involved in Level I violations — a 10-year suspension, lifetime, pick one. Or absent of that, universities have to stop hiring allegedly rehabbed cheaters. The second chances only furthers the opinion that there’s no harm in cheating. Finally, coaches have to stop whispering behind closed doors and do something. If they hear someone is paying a kid, they look away. If they’re going head-to-head with a kid on the take, they stop recruiting them. That doesn’t break the cycle. It just brushes the problem off.

Louisville coach Rick Pitino has been put on unpaid leave because of the FBI’s investigation.
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ELMORE: It should significantly change the so-called “business” of college basketball. Now that these abuses of college sports have caught the eye of the Department of Justice, the potential remedies should capture the imagination of Congress. A conditional antitrust exemption will return to the NCAA its power to regulate the commercial elements of college sports that stampeded away in the 1985 Supreme Court case: Board of Regents Oklahoma versus NCAA. That exemption with a number of reforms and improvements will tip the scales in favor of student-athlete health and welfare. An exemption will allow the NCAA to place limits on capital expenditures for facilities, administrative spending, including salaries and benefits for coaches, and recruiting expenses. Pay-for-play is a cop-out, harmful and demeaning to all young college athletes, and particularly those of color. The burden of academic failure in college basketball has historically fallen on black athletes. Paying college athletes is simply the shiny object that draws them out of the box where, without a meaningful education, most will not thrive.

WOLKEN: I don’t think the mood in college athletics tends to be receptive to big, sweeping changes. Heck, I just read a story from Inside Higher Ed where UConn President Susan Herbst says rather confidently, “We have nothing like that here,” and she knows it because she trusts her AD and keeps a watchful eye on the basketball program. Come on. Not to pick on UConn specifically, but anyone who is taking the position of, “Yeah, it’s out there and we need to fix it, but it’s not on our campus” is just detached from reality and isn’t going to be interested in fundamentally overhauling the structure. It’s obvious to me that (name, image, likeness) rights are going to be opened up eventually, but the question is how we get there. My feeling is it will be incremental, and this case won’t do much to speed it up. While I think (name, image, likeness) rights would fix a lot of this stuff at the highest levels, there will always be an underground economy in college sports.

BOIVIN: This feels a little like the steroid era. Some things will get fixed, but there will always be new ways found to cheat the system. 

 WOLKEN: It’s a tough tightrope to walk for us. This is probably too simplistic, but for the most part success in big-time college sports comes down to the head coach. If you have a good one, you’ll win. If you don’t, you’ll lose. So, you have to cover what happens in college sports through that lens. On the other hand, the outgrowth of coach-centric coverage has contributed to the mythmaking that has turned the successful ones into untouchable gods. Often, we know either intuitively or based on what we’re told by people in the business that some of the very successful coaches out there cut corners or have engaged in these types of deals. But if you can’t prove it — and most of us (including the NCAA) just don’t have the tools the FBI had to prove it — what can you really say?

ELMORE: This method of doing business has been going on in its current form at least since I was a sports agent in the early ’90s. In fact, this method of doing business forced me out of the agent profession. Despite seven first-round picks in 4 1/2 years, I felt to remain competitive I’d have to stoop to conquer or quit. I chose the latter because of risk to reputation and law license. The perpetrators (coaches, shoe company execs, travel team coaches) would be very wary of journalists and would be uncooperative. Even Myron Piggie and Curtis Malone, the last known AAU fixers who were jailed for various reasons, adhered to the rule of the streets: “Don’t snitch.”

The money pouring in from shoe companies like Adidas to college basketball programs is at the center of the latest scandal.
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O’NEIL: I have said to more than one person that I feel complicit in some of this. At the end of the day we are all human and that means we like some people better than others, especially the ones that make our job easier. I wouldn’t say I was “cozy’’ with any coach, nor did I intentionally look the other way, but did I do everything I could have to uncover the things I knew were going on? Probably not. That said, knowing and hearing rumors and proving them are two very different things. I have gone down the rabbit hole on more than one lark because of something I’ve heard, something in my gut I probably knew to be true. Could I prove it? No, so what do you do? If we are culpable in anything, it’s failing to call out the hypocrisy in all of this until now — the shoe companies essentially fund athletic departments. They are the boosters of today. So why wouldn’t a quid pro quo relationship exist?

FORDE: One of my biggest frustrations covering college sports has been knowing that this is transpiring and not being able to responsibly report it. We can point out the scammers and third parties and hangers-on you see around every major program, but can we definitively say what they’re doing? We can logically question the academic credentials of some players at elite universities, but can we prove that they’re not doing the work or not capable of doing the work? We can wonder why a family from modest means suddenly moves halfway across the country to live in the college town where a son is playing college basketball, but can we prove they’re on the take? No. It’s tough. It feels like a failure. Also, there has been a progressively larger contingent of what I would call apologist media covering college sports. They don’t want to know what’s really going on, they don’t want to question anyone. I maintain that one reason Hugh Freeze (the ex-football coach at Ole Miss) got a preposterous benefit of the doubt from many people who cover the SEC was because he welcomed them in. I think it’s worse in basketball than football. When I attended a media roundtable with about 15 NCAA officials in June to discuss the state of college basketball, I told them that the sport’s biggest problem is the belief/suspicion/perception that it’s dirty.

CULPEPPER: I’m with at least several others here: The tools aren’t there. I remember way back in 1990, talking with D. Alan Williams, once the NCAA’s chairman on infractions, and once my history professor at (Virginia). He kept going back to the idea that, within the framework of college sports, it was crucial that the NCAA lacked subpoena power. I may not have grasped it completely until last week. … Meanwhile, the artists of subterfuge apparently have perfected their arts across the decades, getting better at hiding, at not leaving traces. On another side of it, though, pertaining to how we cover these things, I have asked myself for a long time if we (media) should stop belittling those who don’t win, and if we overuse words such as “embarrassment” about losing, helping ratchet up the national fever.

BOIVIN: The simple answer is it’s hard to prove. The more complicated one is that the changing landscape of media has made it more difficult to cover these stories. How many newspapers, with their diminishing staffs, and other outlets are willing to give a reporter the time and resources to do this type of story when they are cutting travel and personnel at a crazy rate. It is not an excuse. Just a reality. And I agree with Pat. The growing number of apologist “media” members is disheartening.


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