Guilty verdicts set precedent in fighting shady recruiting in college basketball

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A federal jury found three men guilty of fraud charges for channeling secret payment to the families of top-tier recruits to influence their choices of schools, apparel companies and agents.

Wednesday’s verdicts place the blame firmly on the men for exposing the universities to NCAA sanctions, essentially portraying the schools as victims.

The NCAA may view the verdict differently.

In fact, the organization that oversees college athletics may now have a deeper reach when it goes after rogue programs. The decision essentially turns amateurism into federal law, possibly giving future NCAA bylaws more bite and ability to dole out punishment.

“I think anybody who breaks the rules in any aspect of our society, you’d like to see them held accountable,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “If the jury found them guilty of breaking rules, then they should be held accountable. But yeah, that’s why we have a jury system and that’s good. It’s always good when, if someone does something wrong, they’re found out, and they’re held accountable for it.”

Former Adidas executive James Gatto, business manager Christian Dawkins and amateur league director Merl Code were convicted of conspiracy to commit wire fraud for funneling money and recruits to Louisville and Kansas.

All three will be sentenced on March 5, but the corruption case doesn’t end there. Former NBA star and Auburn assistant Chuck Person will stand trial in February. Former assistant coaches Emmanuel Richardson of Arizona, Tony Bland of Southern Cal and Lamont Evans of Oklahoma State go to trial in April.

All are accused of funneling apparel company money to recruits and their families.

They could be facing a difficult defense with Wednesday’s verdict now that a precedent of fraud has been set. So could the schools.

The first trial revealed text messages and recorded conversations between coaches and the fixers, though nothing to definitively connect them to paying recruits.

The prosecution argued the schools, which receive federal funds, were not aware of the secret payments, including $100,000 promised to top recruit Brian Bowen Jr.

When put on the stand and facing long prison sentences, the four assistant coaches may tell a different story. At minimum, they will certainly pull back the curtain even further on what had been college basketball’s worst-kept secret.

“I hope that the truth prevails and I mean that with all sincerity,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “There’s so much stuff being floated out there, I hope what’s true will be found out if there’s stuff going and in the long run it will make a difference and help the game.”

The game has already been blemished, first with the arrests of 10 people in September 2017 through the three-week trial that concluded on Wednesday.

More than two dozen schools have been ensnared since the arrests a year ago, for everything from paying for meals to six-figure payments to recruits’ families.

Duke, Oregon, North Carolina State, Creighton and Texas were among the schools mentioned in testimony during the trial. More schools and coaches could be caught up when the next two trials take place, each day of testimony becoming another round of the “who’s next” that played out in New York over the past three weeks.

The NCAA has already adopted a reform package to curb some of the seedy recruiting practices and could be headed toward more reforms now that a legal precedent of federal fraud has been set.

“There’s been many things throughout my 30 years, however many it has been, when things came out, ‘this will be awful for college athletics’ and 10 years later that wasn’t as awful at all,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “We may be better off for it.”

As the trials move forward and more information comes out, the depth of the pay-to-play corruption could become clearer. More schools could be involved or, as some coaches have said, the shady recruiting practices could be limited to a few bad seeds at the top.

“I think it’s easy to paint all of college basketball with a dark brush and that’s not fair; there’s lot of great kids and great coaches and terrific schools involved in it,” Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowslby said. “Are there bad operators out there? Yeah, there are bad operators out there. Some of them are inside schools, some of them are outside schools, but they’re not the vast majority. And, at this point, I don’t know who it is and who it isn’t because the NCAA has not run its process yet.”