A federal trial is telling an important story about the buying and selling of young basketball prospects.
Mr. Sokolove is the author of “The Last Temptation of Rick Pitino: A Story of Corruption, Scandal and the Big Business of College Basketball.”
When I was a young reporter in Philadelphia, I covered the trial of a mobster by the name of Harry (The Hunchback) Riccobene, a tiny man who was then in the twilight of his long criminal career and facing new charges that could send him back to prison, where he had already spent much of his adult life. Early in the proceedings, I approached him in a corridor during a break and asked if he was nervous. He wasn’t. “What’s the expression?” he said to me. “My record speaks for itself.”
As anyone who has covered a criminal trial (or sat through one as a juror or just an observer) knows, they are dramas, the original reality programming, each with its own cast of lead and supporting actors. Over the past three weeks at a federal courthouse in Manhattan, the Justice Department has presented its case against three defendants charged with wrongdoing related to recruiting players on the “grassroots” basketball circuit — a web of teams, tournaments and camps for teenage hoops prospects who often go on to perform in college and the N.C.A.A.’s annual postseason tournament, popularly known as March Madness. The trial has been a predictably good show. The jury is to begin deliberations on Monday, and two other trials, involving five more defendants, are scheduled for the first half of 2020.
The cases began with a wide-ranging investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, first revealed a year ago after agents fanned out across the country and arrested 10 men, including assistant basketball coaches at the University of Arizona, Auburn, Oklahoma State and the University of Southern California. Federal law enforcement, employing its customary methods — wiretaps, hidden cameras, “flipping” suspects and turning them into informants — put names and faces to long-rumored dirty dealing on the college recruiting circuit.
One of the central threads in the current trial involves the recruitment of Brian Bowen Jr., a 6-foot-7 forward from Saginaw, Mich., known to his friends and family as Tugs. The defendants are James Gatto, an executive with Adidas, the sports apparel company; Merl Code, an Adidas consultant; and Christian Dawkins, a “runner,” or go-between, for an N.B.A. agent whose job it was to recruit clients. They are charged with a range of felonies, including wire fraud.
The trial told an important story about the buying and selling of young basketball prospects, often in ways that are invisible to the players themselves. The teenage basketball stars are commodities to the hustlers and cons in the hoops underworld — and more disturbingly, sometimes to their own families. But the looming question for the jury is whether the government, in addition to staging a compelling courtroom drama, has made a convincing case that the defendants broke federal laws — rather than just N.C.A.A. recruiting rules.
The essential facts of the case are unchallenged by the defense: The three men worked together to induce Bowen to enroll at the University of Louisville, an Adidas-sponsored school whose athletes are required to wear Adidas-branded shoes and gear. Bowen’s father, Brian Bowen Sr., was promised $100,000 by Dawkins, with the money to be provided by Adidas. (All colleges at the top level of N.C.A.A. sports are sponsored by one of the major sports apparel companies, and they become known as “Adidas schools,” “Nike schools” or “Under Armour schools.”)
Tugs Bowen, now 19, was declared ineligible to play at Louisville last season after the charges were filed — and after he transferred to the University of South Carolina, the N.C.A.A. said he could not compete there, either. He is currently playing for a pro team in Australia.
His father, a former police officer in Saginaw and his son’s basketball mentor, was on the witness stand for two days. He had been granted immunity from prosecution as long as he told the truth. His testimony was revealing of his own sense of ethics — and even more so of the corrupted world of elite youth basketball.
He explained that he had been accepting money for his son’s services since Tugs was in his midteens. He took $4,000 in return for his son to play on an Adidas-sponsored amateur team in Michigan — and then $25,000 to switch to a Nike-sponsored amateur squad in Chicago.
He said he was paid $2,000 a month by the basketball coach at La Lumiere School in Indiana, a well-regarded private school (it’s the alma mater of John Roberts Jr., the chief justice of the Supreme Court) where Tugs transferred after his sophomore year at a public school in Saginaw. He said that in all these instances, including what he called the “money scheme” at Louisville, his son was unaware of the cash he was taking.
“So you’ve been pimping out your namesake since he was 14 years old?” Dawkins’s lawyer, Steve Haney, asked on cross-examination. Bowen did not disagree. He quibbled only about the timing, saying he had not started taking money until Tugs was 15 or 16.
Brian Bowen Jr. was not the top-rated player in the class of 2017; he was no better than the 15th. No one involved in college basketball believes the circumstances of his recruitment are singular, and the government’s case strongly suggests that top players or their families are routinely paid from the moment they are identified as potential college stars. Testimony at the trial indicated that the families of players recruited to at least two other major college basketball programs, at the University of Kansas and North Carolina State, took money directed to them by Adidas representatives.
A federal crime must have a victim. In this case, the victims, according to the government’s case, are the universities — including Louisville, the highest-grossing team in college basketball, which plays in an N.B.A.-style arena and has generated about $45 million in annual revenue over the past several years. The prosecution contends that the defendants harmed the universities by saddling them with ineligible players, which could have caused them to have to forfeit games as well as revenue from the lucrative postseason tournament.
Part of the defense case is that the three defendants could not possibly have caused harm to the universities by making recruits ineligible, because the whole grassroots scene is so polluted that the young men, under N.C.A.A. rules, had been paid and professionalized from middle school on up. “Brian Bowen was ineligible seven times before he ever got to Louisville,” Dawkins’s lawyer told the jury in his closing, referring to payments that Bowen Sr. had taken while his son was a player on the youth circuit.
Only $19,500 of the $100,000 promised for Bowen’s commitment to Louisville ever made its way to his family — which is one-quarter of 1 percent of the $7.8 million annual salary that Louisville’s coach at the time, Rick Pitino, was making. (He was fired a year ago after news of the case broke.) College football and basketball generate billions of dollars in annual revenue to the N.C.A.A. and its member schools.
The players are ostensibly amateurs, “student-athletes” in the lexicon of the N.C.A.A. Whether they should be paid is a subject of healthy public debate, but the judge in this case, Lewis A. Kaplan, made prospective jurors pledge allegiance to this amateur model — to agree, as he put it, that college athletes should “get their scholarships, and nothing more.”
The N.C.A.A., of course, is not on trial, but it looms as almost a shadow defendant — a multi-billion-dollar enterprise resting on a pool of unpaid, disproportionately African-American labor. The inequities engender cynicism, and N.C.A.A. rules are not followed and not regarded as having any moral authority — not by the players, their families, their youth coaches or by many of the college coaches seeking their services. Evidence presented over the past three weeks has certainly helped drive that point home.
No matter what the jury’s verdict is in the current trial, it has been impossible to follow the proceedings without concluding that the N.C.A.A. model has reached its logical end. College sports must find a way to fairly compensate its work force.
Michael Sokolove is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and the author, most recently, of “The Last Temptation of Rick Pitino: A Story of Corruption, Scandal and the Big Business of College Basketball.”