“To others choosing to conduct business this way in the world of college athletics, we have your playbook.” With that quote, U.S. Attorney Joon H. Kim changed the game for college basketball.

Before Tuesday, NCAA sanctions had failed to deter potential cheaters. The stature and financial impact that comes with making a Final Four has far outweighed the penalties the NCAA has doled out. The NCAA has vacated ten Final Four appearances, but the threat of taking down a banner has not deterred schools.

The days of ignoring NCAA requests, lying to NCAA investigators, or acting without fear of the consequences changed on Tuesday, September 26, 2017, when the FBI arrested and charged ten individuals with crimes carrying maximum sentences ranging from 80-200 years. The charges included bribery conspiracy, solicitation of bribes, honest services fraud conspiracy, honest services fraud, wire fraud conspiracy, and travel act conspiracy. Four assistant basketball coaches at Arizona, Oklahoma State, USC, and Auburn were among the ten individuals charged. Within the complaint, U.S. Attorney Joon H. Kim laid out two distinct sets of allegations.

The first scheme alleged that college basketball coaches took cash bribes from athlete advisors in exchange for using their influence over college players under their control to pressure and direct those players and their families to retain the services of the advisors paying the bribes. The second scheme alleged that a senior executive at Company-1 (now known to be Adidas) funneled bribe payments to high-school players and their families to secure those players’ commitments to attend universities sponsored by Company-1, rather than universities sponsored by rival athletic apparel companies.

Perhaps the most striking example of the minimal impact NCAA sanctions can have on a program is Louisville. For the first time in history, the NCAA vacated a National Championship when the committee on infractions ruled in June of 2017 that Louisville’s 2013 National Championship would be vacated. Despite the June ruling, Louisville and Adidas agreed to a new 10-year contract in August worth $160 million.

Fast forward two more months and Louisville is once again at the heart of a college basketball scandal. The allegation which has already sent shockwaves throughout the college basketball world involved Louisville Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino. The complaint detailed an alleged $100,000 payment to the family of Player-10 from an Adidas executive, upon request from a coach at University-6 (Louisville). An interview with Louisville Head Coach Rick Pitino from June, where he described how Louisville recruited Player-10 suddenly looked very different.

“We got lucky on this one. I had an AAU director call me and ask if I’d be interested in a player…I said, ‘Yeah, I’d be really interested.’ They had to come in unofficially, pay for their hotel, pay for their meals. We spent zero dollars recruiting a five-star athlete who I loved when I saw him play. In my 40 years of coaching this is the luckiest I’ve been.”

The ramifications of the FBI investigation are far-reaching. Most importantly, it has put coaches, advisors, agents, and executives on notice that a slap on the wrist or removal of a Final Four banner are no longer the only penalties they face; jail time has entered the picture. The investigation will not stop with ten individuals. The threat of jail time will be leveraged to obtain information, leading to more charges and deeper investigations. Since the complaints were filed, the director of basketball operations at the University of Alabama has resigned, Louisville has “effectively fired” head coach Rick Pitino and athletic director Tom Jurich, Nike’s Elite Youth Basketball League was served with a subpoena, and rumors are swirling about more coaches and schools becoming ensnared in the investigation.

The FBI will soon move on to a new target and the NCAA and NBA must increase their focus. Many have suggested that the only way to prevent these types of activities are to pay players. But that would have very little impact. In any possible scenario where players are paid, they will not earn enough money to stamp out the allure of a $100,000 payment. The most likely scenario is that the NBA will allow players to declare for the NBA Draft directly out of high-school. The current one and done rules make it attractive and profitable for shoe companies to cultivate relationships with players that they know will be in the NBA within a year. The NBA has already committed to decertifying any agent who is involved in the current scandal. The NCAA must devote more resources to a basketball specific agency tasked with improving conditions for players and deterring illegal behavior. Penalties for violators must increase and lifetime bans need to be on the table for coaches and advisors. In any event, the game has changed and the FBI has applied the full-court press.

Jonathan M. Gerken

 

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