Despite stealing millions, the man who started the federal basketball scandal walked free Thursday

Dan WetzelColumnist
Yahoo Sports
The NCAA logo is shown on a basketball. (G Fiume/Maryland Terrapins/Getty Images)
The NCAA logo is shown on a basketball. (G Fiume/Maryland Terrapins/Getty Images)

NEW YORK — Marty Blazer is a crook, a con man, a thief. As a financial planner in Pittsburgh he stole $2.3 million from his clients, some of them former professional football players. If you tally up all the crimes he pleaded guilty to, he was facing 67 years.

He’s so shameless that at his sentencing hearing Thursday he even dared to argue for leniency by noting the two movies and the country music deal he funded with the stolen money all tanked. So it’s not like he benefited all that much. 

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U.S. District Judge Edgardo Ramos wasn’t sold on that argument but it hardly mattered.  

Ramos gave Blazer probation, a $2.35 million forfeiture judgement and an order to pay back his clients some $1.56 million. How the 49-year-old pays that is anyone’s guess.

Whatever. On Thursday morning, Marty Blazer walked right out of Thurgood Marshall United States Courthouse, the deal of a lifetime.

He got off because upon his arrest in 2013 he offered to help the feds supposedly bust up corruption in college basketball by catching agents, financial planners and shoe companies plying players and their families with money. 

Doing so violates NCAA rules which, if you stretch it long enough, violates federal law because these poor million-dollar college basketball programs were technically defrauded into playing “ineligible” superstars inside sold-out arenas as part of lucrative national television deals.

It’s a circular crime … an action in search of a victim. The feds went with it though and old Marty did his job, looping in a financial planner in New Jersey, then a would-be agent named Christian Dawkins, and then a slew of grassroots basketball characters and mid-level shoe executives, all trying to hustle.

Ten men wound up pleading out or being found guilty. Plenty more were affected. Players’ careers were altered. Reputations were ruined. Millions and millions were spent. Four men got actual federal prison time (three are still out pending appeal). Judge Ramos dropped a year and a day on Dawkins alone. 

So here was a fitting end to a ridiculous scandal: Marty Blazer, who actually stole millions, walking free because he helped catch people who were handing out thousands.

The Southern District of New York once spoke big about how it was going to clean up college basketball. “We have your playbook,” the FBI’s William Sweeney boldly said. But across two trials, prosecutors limited the scope of the evidence and didn’t pursue further charges, effectively negating it all. 

The NCAA pretended to be concerned, but neither its president, nor its senior staff, nor any conference commissioners or athletic directors ever showed up at any of the trials to hear firsthand how “amateurism” works in the real world. Two-and-a-half years later its enforcement department is backloaded with almost nothing done. 

The NCAA even wrote a letter in support of Blazer, noting how helpful he’s been in pursuing NCAA rule violations. 

Of course. Of course it did. 

Of course no one at the NCAA considered what a ridiculous idea it would be to cape up for an admitted felon who stole from their former players (some of whom he says he recruited as clients by trying to pay them while still in school) because he decided to defend their precious rules in an effort to save his own tail. 

With the NCAA, it’s anything for that rule book. Truly anything.

If anyone from college athletics had dared to attend the trials they likely would have found Blazer reprehensible on the witness stand while hearing firsthand how almost no one on the front lines of the sport (from famous coaches to AAU runners) tries to follow the rules. It’s all a game of pretend, just one big tax-dodge. 

You could say Blazer’s probation closes the book on things, but it doesn’t. Six floors down on the same day in the same Lower Manhattan courthouse, the trial of whether lawyer Michael Avenatti extorted Nike played out.

Michael Avenatti speaks to the media outside of a New York court house on July 23, 2019 in New York City. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Michael Avenatti speaks to the media outside of a New York court house on July 23, 2019 in New York City. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Avenatti doesn’t know Blazer but it was Blazer who got him here. It was Blazer’s undercover act that netted the Adidas directors. Because of that, when a Nike AAU basketball coach named Gary Franklin lost funding for his team in a feud with his Nike directors, he saw his chance. He went to Avenatti last March with proof of the same kind of conduct and wrongdoing at Nike that got the Adidas guys sentenced to prison. 

Avenatti quickly demanded Nike pay $1.5 million to Franklin and $20-something million for he and fellow celebrity attorney Mark Geragos to conduct an "internal investigation" into its grassroots basketball division.

The feds call that an attempted shakedown. Avenatti says it was just an aggressive negotiation. The jury will decide. 

Testimony on Thursday though was another glimpse into this funhouse mirror. Avenatti has a mountain of other legal (he has two more federal trials after this one) and personal issues but this one isn’t so cut and dried. 

Franklin, for instance, was claiming from the stand that he felt betrayed because of how shockingly intense Avenatti was as a lawyer. Apparently Franklin hired a guy he knew from blasting Donald Trump nightly on cable news because he thought Avenatti was just some nice, puppy dog advocate. 

At another point there were 15 attorneys on the other side of the bar. There were the fully staffed defense and prosecution tables, the defendant himself and the witness, a junior lawyer from Boies Schiller Flexner. That’s the powerhouse firm Nike retains to solve problems such as a whistleblower on accusations of criminal conduct.

The young Boies lawyer was describing a March 2019 meeting that featured five attorneys from four separate firms where the extortion/settlement went down. Except, apparently hindered by the memory of a 137-year-old man, he couldn’t recall much of anything from 11 months ago, including what he’d written down during the meeting. 

It was nonsense, a waste of time, just lawyers and lawyers and more lawyers.

Victims?

It’s hard to say Nike. On the witness stand the other day one of the company's own attorneys didn't deny that its employees funneled money to the parents and handlers of top high school recruits (which are supposedly crimes although for some reason no one is being prosecuted). Nike doesn’t seem concerned. None of the accused have been publicly disciplined and almost all still work there. 

It can’t be the big-time college coaches at the schools in question. They all still have their jobs too (at least the ones who continued to win). And it can’t be the NCAA, which once again didn’t show up — although, in fairness, writing those letters for leniency can be tiring.

It certainly wasn’t Marty Blazer. He smartly got out of the courthouse as fast as he could. 

At least someone can claim victory around here.

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