Column: Bribery kickback scandal rocks college basketball world

'Beyond the Lines'

Last week a New York federal court handed up indictments charging a number of assistant coaches, agents, financial advisers and shoe company employees with corruption in recruiting amateur basketball players.

Ten men were arrested on criminal charges including conspiracy to commit wire fraud and money laundering. During a press conference to announce the arrests, Joon Kim, acting U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, said the investigation is ongoing, sending an ominous signal that this is merely the tip of the iceberg in unmasking a scandal that has been an open secret for years. Prosecutors will no doubt use the prospect of jail time to coerce defendants into identifying more schools, coaches, and companies involved in the corruption, kickbacks and bribery schemes to funnel top-level athletes to certain programs.

A number of the most storied and successful college basketball programs in the country have already been ensnared in the probe, including Arizona, Oklahoma State, USC, South Carolina, Auburn and Louisville.

Also at the center of the scandal is apparel and shoe company Adidas, one of the world’s most recognized sports brands.

A top-level Adidas executive was charged with conspiracy to pay tens of thousands of dollars to families of high school recruits to induce them to sign with major college programs, many of which were Adidas clients.

In one case detailed in the indictments $150,000 was funneled through agents and financial companies before it ended up in the hands of the player and his family. The expectation was when the player turned pro, he would sign with a specific agent who in turn would recommend Adidas as the player’s sponsor.

Louisville immediately suspended head coach Rick Pitino, the highest paid basketball coach in the country at $7.8 million per year, and athletic director Tom Jurich. Later, Louisville moved to terminate Pitino’s contract for cause, which means he could lose out on $55 million.

For his part, Pitino professed ignorance of a black-market system that has profited him handsomely. In a statement issued after the indictments were made public, Pitino said the allegations “come as a complete shock to me.”

Those words echo the position he took when the NCAA disciplined him and the university last summer after an investigation determined the Uber coach failed to monitor a former staff member who arranged strip dances and sex acts for players and recruits at a Louisville dormitory.

If you’re wondering what role the NCAA is playing in the investigation, the answer is none. The Association that professes to regulate college athletics was intentionally left on the outside looking in.

The feds chose to conduct their activities in secret, fearing any leaks would jeopardize their investigation. NCAA President Mark Emmert claimed the announcement caught him off guard, but pledged his organization’s full support.

Like Pitino, the NCAA most certainly knew what was going on, but because it is powerless to do anything about it, chose the ostrich approach.

The NCAA doesn’t have the investigative tools available to federal prosecutors, including subpoena powers and threats of incarceration. Better to feign ignorance than to be unmasked as impotent.

Recommendations aimed at preventing future scandals are plentiful. Among them are allowing players to have agents, paying players a portion of the billions of dollars that flow into college sports coffers, and permitting players to market themselves, all of which are currently prohibited under the NCAA’s archaic and restrictive rules. But even if all those options — and others — were adopted immediately, believing they would cleanse the recruiting system of illegal and corrupt practices is delusional.

The problem with college sports, specifically football and basketball, comes down to one word: money. There’s so much money involved in college sports it’s become a magnet for the greedy and criminal elements of society.

For the same reason Willie Sutton robbed banks, scandals like the one currently engulfing basketball are destined to plague our nation’s colleges.

Jordan Kobritz is a former attorney, CPA, Minor League Baseball team owner and current investor in MiLB teams. He is a Professor in and Chair of the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and maintains the blog: http://sportsbeyondthelines.com. The opinions contained in this column are the author’s. Jordan can be reached at jordan.kobritz@cortland.edu.