What Will The FBI Investigation Mean For College Basketball?
While many began last week looking forward to the start of college basketball practices, the sport was thrown for a loop thanks to the FBI. Last Monday it was announced that ten people were arrested on charges of corruption and bribery in connection to the recruitment of players either for college programs or for sports agencies once they turn pro.
Among those arrested were four assistant coaches: Arizona’s Emanuel “Book” Richardson, Auburn’s Chuck Person, Oklahoma State’s Lamont Evans, and USC’s Tony Bland. Others arrested include two key employees in the adidas grassroots basketball department, Jim Gatto and Merl Code. The 57-page report released in connection with the investigation detailed a host of wrongdoings, with ACC power Louisville featured prominently as well. As a result of the report the school placed both athletic director Tom Jurich and head coach Rick Pitino on leave, with the latter’s being unpaid and the school’s Board of Regents voting to begin termination “with cause” proceedings.
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Louisville, which was projected by many to be a Top 10 team and a contender in the ACC, will also be without freshman wing Brian Bowen. Bowen’s recruitment raised eyebrows in June, as he verbally committed to Louisville despite the school not being on his list of finalists. Per the report a Louisville coach paid $100,000 to secure an unidentified player’s commitment, with the school eventually confirming that Bowen was the player in question. As one would expect Bowen is not being allowed to participate in any team activities, due to Louisville’s concern regarding his amateur status.
Of the four programs that had coaches arrested two have the potential to be Top 10 teams (Arizona and USC), with Arizona being viewed by more than a few pundits as being the best team in college basketball entering the 2017-18 season. As for the Trojans, they could be Arizona’s biggest threat in the race for the Pac-12 title as head coach Andy Enfield has a roster that doesn’t lack for depth, experience or talent. Auburn could be an NCAA tournament team this season, but Person’s arrest and head coach Bruce Pearl’s NCAA issues while at Tennessee — even though he was not part of the FBI report — have cast some doubt on the Tigers’ hopes of being a factor in the SEC race.
Given all of that, there’s a simple question to be asked: what does this all mean for college basketball? Unfortunately, there’s no simple answer to be found.
How this case plays out will depend upon what those already arrested will divulge, most especially Gatto and Code given their knowledge of shoe companies’ roles in recruiting. Code is key for another reason, as prior to joining adidas he was part of Nike’s grassroots staff. Which is why it was unwise for people to believe this was about just one company, and also why the FBI subpoenaed Nike late last week. With adidas, Nike and Under Armour all having grassroots circuits in which many of the nation’s top prospects play on an annual basis, we’re a long way off from the FBI learning “everything” regarding the recruitment of highly-regarded players.
As a result the NCAA is an interested spectator, sitting back while the FBI does its work. Eventually some of these programs, most especially Louisville, will have to answer the NCAA’s questions. In the case of Louisville, that program was sanctioned regarding the scandal involving escorts and strippers being paid to entertain (or more) recruits and players by former staffer Andre McGee. And just over a month after sitting in front of the Committee on Infractions, a coach was per FBI documents negotiating a deal to pay for another verbal commitment. That’s either arrogance or stupidity, but regardless of the answer it was clear that a change needed to be made.
But how far would the NCAA go when it comes time to make a decision? How far can they afford to go without looking like hypocrites would be a better question to ask.
Since Sonny Vaccaro got the ball rolling in the early 1980s at Nike, paying college head coaches and giving them gear for their teams to wear in practices and games, that business arrangement has led to schools being paid hundreds of millions of dollars to align themselves with an apparel company. That setup saves schools a significant amount of money, but here’s the thing: it also turns those athletic departments into an advertiser not only for the school as a whole but also the apparel company they’ve entered the agreement with. That’s why some teams wear quirky uniforms, and it’s why you can have a case where a high-ranking employee feels that it’s in his or her company’s best interest to make sure their cash cow program is putting an elite product on the court.
That’s why you get situations like the one allegedly involving Brian Bowen. And it’s also why the investigator’s characterization of the schools as victims in all of this is a major reach. Louisville is one of adidas’ marquee programs, especially in the aftermath of UCLA making the move to Under Armour this summer. With a Nike-outfitted rival in the same state having no trouble reeling in highly regarded talent, and not alluded to in the FBI investigation either, the pressure may have been on despite Louisville’s recent run of success. Despite having no reason to be greedy people were, with a program full of players who had nothing to do with any of this being left to “hold the bag” as a result.
While it would be silly to refer to collegiate athletics as “youth sports,” it’s a situation where young people are essentially at the mercy of adults who should focus on the players’ best interests instead of their own. But as has been the case over the years with amateur sports reeling in substantial amounts of money, the greed and arrogance of adults messed things up. But given the way the presidents who make up the NCAA have thought, they’ll look to hold the athletes accountable for this mess instead of the adults who should know better.