Remember the so-called Adidas recruiting scandal that was supposed to expose college basketball corruption and turn the game upside down?
Remember when big shots from the FBI and the U.S. attorney’s office in New York made a big show of it with a splashy press conference, complete with colorful charts? The new sheriffs had just ridden into town and were vowing to “expose the dark underbelly of college basketball” and issued this Dirty Harry-like warning to the crooks out there: “We have your playbook.”
It never happened. It was a flop. It was good theater, but all talk. Three years later it’s business as usual for the college game (or it was until the pandemic).
“The Scheme,” a newly released HBO documentary, tells the tale. The show makes it clear that investigators had targeted big-time programs, big-name coaches and the netherworld of agents and pay-for-player deals. In the end, they got a little guy, and a few other little guys, all of whom were sent their rooms without supper and little more.
Surely the feds had aimed higher. Why else would they launch a three-year investigation that involved hundreds of wiretaps and the use of a yacht and a luxurious Las Vegas suite and stacks of cash for payouts?
“The Scheme” follows the case through the eyes of Christian Dawkins. He recognized early on that his aspirations to be a star player were not going to be realized, so he used his considerable entrepreneurial skills to carve out a place for himself on the periphery of the game. He was only 12 years old when he started a successful scouting service for coaches, charging $600 per subscription. At 17, he managed a top-ranked AAU team, negotiating a lucrative shoe deal with Under Armour, signing sponsors and selecting coaches and players.
He was so well connected and knowledgeable that he caught the eye of agent Andy Miller, who hired him to recruit and manage basketball talent for his agency. Dawkins’ job was to court and manage young, rising basketball players, which included paying the players and their families. The end game is that the player will reach the stardom that is predicted for him, and, when he declares for the draft, that he will then sign with the agency, which brings millions of dollars in fees for negotiating contracts and marketing deals. A $50,000 investment in a player can reap millions if all goes according to plan, although there are risks in betting on a player’s performance years down the road.
Enter the NCAA, which forbids the payment of players. It enforces strict antiquated amateurism rules on players even while making billions annually off their sweat. As the documentary notes, a business could pay promising IT or math students with the hope that they would one day work for them after graduation, but the same cannot be done for promising “student-athletes.” The NCAA reserves the sole right to cash in on players. Enforcing a bubble of amateurism in a capitalist society is impossible and it foments an underworld of agents and facilitators paying players under the table. (If you’re guessing that the NCAA is the real villain in this story, put a star on your forehead.)
Dawkins became a facilitator for such a business arrangement with a handful of people. Two of them, he would later learn, were undercover FBI agents, “Jeff D’Angelo” and “Jill Bailey.” Normally, Dawkins paid players directly — morally and ethically, he has no problem with this; it does not violate the law, only NCAA rules, and he believes players have a right to earn a living with their abilities.
D’Angelo, the undercover agent posing as the financier of the operation, insists that Dawkins pay the coaches, too. This makes no sense to Dawkins. Coaches have no motivation to push a kid to declare for the NBA draft and, as Dawkins notes, he (Dawkins) already has more sway with the player’s future than the coach. But D’Angelo insists that payments go to coaches, too, without revealing his real motivation: This would constitute bribery of a public official. It’s entrapment of the first order.
Dawkins is being urged to commit felonies. He reluctantly agrees to do as D’Angelo says, but secretly keeps the money rather than waste it on a coach because, he says, this will save expenses for his company.
To facilitate the operation, Dawkins recruits a number of college assistant coaches and Adidas officials who have influence with players and head coaches, as well as several shady financiers. His connections, it becomes clear, reach all the way to the top of elite college basketball programs.
And then it all unravels for Dawkins. He is confronted by FBI agents and offered a deal if he helps them catch big-name head coaches and agents. Ironically, while the agents are grilling Dawkins, the latter notices that Arizona head coach Sean Miller is calling him on his cellphone — and that the agents’ phones ring simultaneously (they’ve been tapped into his phone for months). They want him to wear a wire. Dawkins says he wants a lawyer instead, and other agents burst into the room with guns pointed.
Ten men are charged with bribery and corruption, including several college assistant coaches. Dawkins insists on a trial. Along the way, college basketball’s dirty laundry is revealed. The father of one basketball player — Brian Bowen Sr. — testified under oath that various schools had offered his son of the same name hundreds of thousands of dollars to sign with them, as well as a house and car.
Ultimately, Dawkins gets by far the stiffest sentence — a year in jail — and the other defendants in the case get light sentences or probation. Louisville wound up firing Rick Pitino, but he never faced the legal system. Other head coaches who seemed to incriminate themselves on tape never faced charges, nor were they fired.
“From the start of this whole case, the whole idea was to bring in coaches and they (feds) could’ve blown the whole thing up if they wanted to,” says Dawkins, “and they didn’t because the right people got to the right people and it was stopped. … I can’t fathom that I’m the person that all these resources went into catching.”
Yahoo sports reporter Dan Wetzel says, “The original point was they were going to change everything, and then they just backed away. They didn’t do it … They had the opportunity, they had the resources, they had the power. They said they wanted to do it; they didn’t do it.”
The documentary begins with a decades old quote from former Nevada-Las Vegas coach Jerry Tarkanian: “Nine out of 10 schools are cheating. The other one is in last place.”
Not much seems to have changed.