Don’t bet on yesterday’s round-up of ten suspects by the FBI in a bribery and corruption scandal being the end of this NCAA basketball scandal. The Department of Justice warned in a press conference that this is just the beginning of their look at the “dark underbelly of college basketball,” pledging to root out the “coyotes” exploiting athletes for their own enrichment.
In one of the biggest-ever crackdowns on corruption in college sports, the feds on Tuesday busted four NCAA Division 1 basketball coaches, a top Adidas exec and five others in two bribery schemes to recruit star athletes and funnel them to particular schools, agents, financial advisers and shoe sponsors.
And authorities warned the NCAA that they were just warming up.
“We have your playbook,” New York FBI Assistant Director in Charge William Sweeney said during a Manhattan news conference. “Our investigation is ongoing, and we are conducting additional interviews as we speak.”
Court papers implicated two of the nations’s top basketball schools, with the already troubled University of Louisville confirming it was one of them.
That runs counter to the response from Louisville head coach Rick Pitino, who claimed that the scandal only showed that NCAA basketball has “a few bad actors”:
In a statement issued by his personal attorney, and not the university, Pitino said the allegations outlined in criminal complaints filed on Tuesday “come as a complete shock to me.”
“If true, I agree with the U.S. Attorney’s Office that these third-party schemes, initiated by a few bad actors, operated to commit a fraud on the impacted universities and their basketball programs, including the University of Louisville,” he said.
“Our fans and supporters deserve better and I am committed to taking whatever steps are needed to ensure those responsible are held accountable.”
Complete shock? Ahem. Pitino’s currently serving a five-game suspension for an unrelated NCAA penalty after another of his staffers supplied prostitutes to players and recruits. At least seven and as many as ten of those recruits were minors at the time, and the purpose was clearly to entice them to signing up at the university. Pitino was not personally a part of those transactions (so to speak), but he broke rules by allowing his staffer to directly interact with recruits in their dorm rooms, which left those interactions unsupervised. Pitino may deserve a Captain Louis Renault Award for claiming “shock” at recruitment corruption going on in his program.
Apparently, Louisville thought the same thing. Earlier today they put both Pitino and athletic director Tom Jurich “on leave,” which Pitino’s lawyer called “effectively fired”:
The University of Louisville put legendary basketball coach Rick Pitino and its athletic director on administrative leave Wednesday, a day after learning the school is part of a sweeping federal investigation into bribery.
Pitino’s attorney told the Louisville Courier-Journal that the 65-year-old had been “effectively fired,” but the university said his “employment will be reviewed at a different date.”
“Doing nothing would be a tacit endorsement of ethical and criminal behaviors,” Louisville interim president Greg Postel said at a press conference.
Pitino and athletic director Tom Jurich were not named in criminal complaints filed Tuesday, but if the allegations are true, they oversaw assistant coaches who conspired with an executive at Adidas and a cabal of athletic middlemen to lure high-schoolers to Louisville by funneling payoffs to their families.
Louisville got put on probation for four years this summer in the NCAA adjudication of the case, a point that came up in covertly recorded conversations in the FBI probe. The assistant coach raised the issue while discussing how to bribe a recruit, reminding everyone that “we gotta be very low-key.” That … didn’t work out so well, and it’s a clear sign that NCAA penalties such as suspensions do not provide the disincentives necessary to clean up programs — and that may be an indicator of a much more endemic problem in the sport.
That may be why the Department of Justice decided to take a more activist role. The New York Post’s Zach Braziler notes that these kinds of cases were traditionally left to the NCAA to pursue, and that the law-enforcement intervention means that “college hoops won’t be the same”:
College basketball coaches have been caught paying players before. Handing out extra benefits have cost some their jobs. The result, at worst, is punishment from the NCAA.
Which makes Tuesday’s blockbuster news, that four assistant coaches and six others connected to grass-roots basketball were arrested on bribery and fraud charges in a pay-for-play scheme that involved players being pushed towards agents, financial advisors and sneaker companies, so groundbreaking.
“Without a doubt, it’s going to change recruiting dramatically,” one Division I head coach said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “This is a game-changer in college basketball.”
The coach’s basis for this opinion was simple: If the FBI is involved, the stakes are now greater. Losing a job is one thing, but serving prison time is another. And clearly this isn’t the end of it.
Braziler hits the nail on the head on incentives. People didn’t fear losing their jobs because there were other jobs in the industry to pursue. A prison sentence, on the other hand, changes the entire incentive structure, both in the long term and in the short run as well. How many of these first 10 defendants will start singing about others in order to avoid or shorten prison time? I’m guessing … 10 out of 10. The FBI will want to hear about connections with head coaches, administrators, alumni associations, and of course the corporate sponsors of NCAA sports. Lost in the shuffle yesterday was that the alleged corruption from an Adidas exec exists separately from these other charges — another layer of corruption, not the same layer.
As Yahoo’s Dan Wetzel predicts, this is just the tip of iceberg, and it may get a lot uglier:
Yet for college hoops none of it represents the scariest part of the three complaints laid out by the DOJ on Tuesday. This, a statement by said undercover FBI agent, should terrify every coach in America:
“Because this affidavit is being submitted for the limited purpose of establishing probable cause, it does not include all of the facts that I have learned during the court of the investigation.”
Meaning, this is the tip of the iceberg.
“Our investigation is ongoing,” FBI assistant director Bill Sweeney warned. “And we are currently conducting interviews.”
“If you yourself engaged in these activities, I’d encourage you to call us,” said Kim, the Acting U.S. Attorney. “I think it’s better than us calling you.”
College hoops won’t ever be the same, and it might get bad enough that it ceases to exist in its current form. This might be an American sports scandal without precedent … and in some ways it already is.