NEW YORK – It has been five months since the FBI arrested 10 men in a sweeping federal probe into the underbelly of the basketball world. As the three ongoing criminal cases resulting from the investigation plod along, it’s increasingly unlikely there will be another wave of double-digit arrests.
More legal charges still could come, but what’s becoming increasingly clear as the discovery portion of the case comes to a close is that the breadth of potential NCAA rules violations uncovered is wide enough to fundamentally and indelibly alter the sport of college basketball.
The soundtrack to the three federal basketball corruption cases is essentially a ticking time bomb, which will inevitably explode. It will impact every major conference, Hall of Fame coaches, a score of current top players and some of the nation’s most distinguished and respected programs.
Multiple sources who’ve been briefed on the case and are familiar with the material obtained by feds told Yahoo Sports that the impact on the sport will be substantial and relentless. Sitting under protective order right now are the fruits of 330 days of monitoring activity by the feds, which one assistant US Attorney noted Thursday was “a voluminous amount of material.” That includes wiretaps from 4,000 intercepted calls and thousands of documents and bank records obtained from raids and confiscated computers, including those from notorious NBA agent Andy Miller.
“This goes a lot deeper in college basketball than four corrupt assistant coaches,” said a source who has been briefed on the details of the case. “When this all comes out, Hall of Fame coaches should be scared, lottery picks won’t be eligible to play and almost half of the 16 teams the NCAA showed on its initial NCAA tournament show this weekend should worry about their appearance being vacated.”
There’s a general expectation that this information will be released. It could come in trial, pre-trial motions or released by the government at some point. (No one is certain if they’ve agreed to eventually give it to the NCAA if it doesn’t go public.)
So how bad could be it? In terms of NCAA rules, multiple sources told Yahoo Sports that the material obtained threatens the fundamental structure and integrity of the sport, as there’s potentially as many 50 college basketball programs that could end up compromised in some way.
Among the documents expected to be in the federal government’s protection are the bank records of Miller, who bankrolled middle man, Christian Dawkins, who is at the center of two of the cases.
“If the NCAA is going to get Andy Miller’s bank records, God bless them, I don’t know what they’re going to do,” said another source with direct knowledge of the situation, chuckling at the thought. “You are better off changing the rules. The crazy part of this business is none of the kids are free.”
NCAA officials are staring at the prospect of a tournament with a winner that will likely be vacating its title – and many others eventually vacating their appearances. There’s a lingering mushroom cloud over the sport’s upcoming showcase event that won’t go away. The most fascinating and tricky variable here is time.
There’s a protective order on the evidence found in discovery in all three cases. Whether the information gets out in dribs and drabs or released at once, the consequences are expected to be severe.
The government is not compelled to release the information, according to Daniel Richman, a former federal prosecutor in the Southern District of New York who now teaches at Columbia Law School. “Sometimes never,” he said when asked generally about the timing of the release of information under protective order. He added: “The main sources of release will be in the course of pretrial motions and trial, and/or as related investigations go overt.”
What’s certain is that there’s enough compromising information to rock the sport to its core. There will be thousands of pages of documents, hundreds of hours of wiretaps with the voices of prominent coaches brokering deals with the middlemen, sneaker executives and talent traffickers.
Will it trickle out? Or get released all at once? That’s complicated and procedural. The NCAA’s involvement in this case so far has been minimal. They’ve been in consistent contact with the federal investigators, careful to respect the boundaries of the criminal investigations. Whenever the information is released from under protective order, the NCAA will have to continue to respect the boundaries of the criminal investigations as they begin their own.
Miller’s financial activity is expected to compromise dozens of programs and players, but he certainly wasn’t a rogue agent. Rather, Miller was jockeying for clients in a competitive field where agents consistently exhibited similar behavior. (Miller did not return a call seeking comment.)
The routine nature of agents, runners and financial advisors operating in a world rife with payoffs, bag drops and kickbacks leaves the federal investigators at a fascinating crossroads. “The biggest mystery in this case is why more high-profile coaches and agents haven’t been brought in,” said the source who has been briefed on the case.
As witnesses paint a picture of the depths of corruption in the basketball underworld, the feds need to make a decision whether they want to expose other sneaker companies, agents and coaches. So far, there’s been no indication that they’re prepared to do that. The basketball underworld is sophisticated and nuanced, a black market forged over decades of moving players. Even with all the wiretaps and documents, the feds are still catching up on how it all worked. “The craziest part of it all is that they could have walked into one of 15 agent’s offices and it’s just as bad,” said a source with direct knowledge of the situation. “It just would have been other people and other schools.”
There had been a flurry of activity in the case in the past week that had conjured some optimism for the defense attorneys. A Wall Street Journal report about an undercover FBI agent under investigation and a motion filed revealing a paperwork error appeared to poke some holes in the case.
Those matters will ultimately have to be addressed, but any momentum for the defense attorneys was abruptly and tersely halted Thursday morning.
Judge Lewis A. Kaplan, presiding on the 26th floor of the Daniel Patrick Moynihan United States Courthouse in lower Manhattan, denied a motion to dismiss one of the cases with the legal equivalent of a Dikembe Mutombo finger wag after a blocked shot.
Lawyers for three of the defendants – Adidas executives Merl Code and Jim Gatto and business manager Christian Dawkins – had filed for a motion to dismiss the cases based essentially on the notion that the universities in the cases couldn’t be considered victims. They were, after all, benefitting from the players and their performances on the court.
As Kaplan listened impatiently to Gatto’s lawyer, Michael S. Schachter, argue the motion, the judge’s mood vacillated between annoyed and ornery. His reactions to Schachter’s arguments included, “it would be quite a stretch,” “are you kidding me?” and “I’ve actually read the indictment.” He made one jab about the media attention the case has generated and ultimately dismissed the motion by saying that Schachter’s arguments would be better heard by a jury. (Schachter declined comment.)
The trial for that case will begin on Oct. 1, and the case involving former Auburn assistant Chuck Person and clothier Rashan Michel starts on Feb. 4 of 2019. (Another judge set the date for the third case – which includes the other three assistant coaches – for April 22.)
Until then, the NCAA tournament will be played amid the soundtrack – TICK, TICK, TICK – of potential chaos. Maybe the next one will, too. University presidents should be losing sleep. Millionaire coaches should be losing hair and plotting escapes to the NBA. And players should be preparing for their dirty laundry – or that of their relatives – to be aired.
What would happen if the information under protective order were to be released before the NCAA selection show on March 11?
A source who has been briefed on the case laughed: “You might see Tennessee-Chattanooga as a No. 2 seed.”
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