In the fall, the college basketball world was rocked by an FBI investigation that resulted in the arrest of numerous assistant coaches and the firing of Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino. The ratcheted up another level last week when a who’s who list of college basketball stars and programs were included in a Yahoo Sports report, indicating players who had been listed on a former NBA Agent’s expense spreadsheet as receiving loans and meals. While you could almost include college basketball scandals along with taxes and death as the only certain things in life, the fact that the FBI has been thrown into the scandal is a new wrinkle.

What makes this scandal so significant is not only the number of teams and players involved, but the programs that were implicated. Included in Yahoo’s report were Alabama, Duke, Kansas, Kentucky, LSU, Maryland, Michigan State, North Carolina State, North Carolina, Notre Dame, Texas, USC, Washington, and Wichita State, among others. The report included current star players Collin Sexton, Wendell Carter, Kevin Knox, and Miles Bridges, as well as current NBA players Dennis Smith Jr., Kyle Kuzma, Markelle Fultz, Bam Adebayo, and Josh Jackson. While the initial report included impermissible benefits provided by ASM Sports in the form of loans and meals to players, the most significant part of the investigation involves Arizona Head Coach Sean Miller, and likely first overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, DeAndre Ayton.

The portion of the report involving Arizona did not simply involve entries on a spreadsheet; Arizona was implicated with a wiretap. An FBI wiretap intercepted a phone call between Miller and Christian Dawkins, an ASM Sports employee, in which they discussed paying Ayton $100,000 to ensure he would play basketball at Arizona. Miller has been removed from his head coaching duties until an investigation by the school can be completed. The allegations involving Arizona are clearly on another level than the other players and schools, due to the scope. Even so, while the $100,000 payment would be a cut and dry violation of NCAA rules, many have been left wondering why the FBI is involved and why criminal charges are being discussed.

The quick explanation is that the FBI views coaches as “agents of federally funded organizations” because the schools do more than $10,000 a year in business with the federal government, whether through grants, loans, contracts, or other collaborations. The FBI charges that the coaches’ actions in this scandal put their schools at “risk of tangible economic harm” due to the possible loss of profit-sharing revenue that could result from NCAA sanctions. Some have argued this is simply a publicity grab by the FBI, as they have never investigated NCAA violations in the past. Others, like Jay Bilas, have blasted the NCAA’s response to the issue, arguing that the NCAA has turned a blind eye to the corruption for years.

Part Two of this college basketball scandal has brought a wave of criticism and proposals on how to deal with the issue. Jalen Rose and Jay Williams have urged players to boycott the Final Four, and use their leverage to pressure the NCAA to provide more compensation to players. LeBron James and Stan Van Gundy have labeled the NCAA as “corrupt” and advocated for alternatives for players, as opposed to simply going to college for one year. One thing that seems clear, the NBA needs to re-address their “one and done” rule. Forcing players to go to college who have no interest in being there has increased the occurrence of these situations. Allowing players to profit off their likeness would be another positive step forward. Allowing a stipend to be provided to athletes is another possible solution. The paying of players, however, will not solve this issue. Schools  will not be able to provide compensation to a level where additional payments will no longer be attractive. Agents, boosters, and coaches will always be in a position where they have something to gain by attracting elite talent. While the incentives and payoffs may not change, the FBI’s involvement has certainly changed the lens through which these violations are viewed.

Jonathan Gerken


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