10 things to know about federal college hoops corruption trial as it heads into crucial final stretch

Columnist
Yahoo Sports

NEW YORK – A little over a year ago, federal prosecutors and the FBI staged a news conference to discuss the arrests of 10 men involved in a basketball fraud scandal and suggested the case would be overwhelming for college sports.

“Today’s arrests should serve as a warning to others choosing to conduct business this way in the world of college athletics,” said Bill Sweeney of the FBI, and it was notable he said “athletics” and not just “basketball,” suggesting this could move to football and other sports.

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“We have your playbook,” Sweeney said. “The investigation is ongoing.”

We are two weeks into the first of the federal trials – wire fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud charges against Adidas executives Jim Gatto and Merl Code and would-be agent and middleman Christian Dawkins. While the stakes remain significant for the defendants, and already the government secured two guilty pleas in this case (T.J. Gassnola and Munish Sood), no truly blockbuster evidence has emerged that has altered the sport.

At least not yet.

The charges were, and remain, a bit confusing, especially for fans of college sports. Does anyone really believe the victims in this case are the teams that got the five-star recruits delivered to them?

The next week or so will determine if the government proves that to the empaneled jury of 12: eight women, four men, none of them revealed during the selection process as anything more than casual fans of the sport (terms such as “Final Four” and “March Madness” have been explained).

So where are we with this? Here are a few items to consider as the trial enters Week 3, when the case likely goes to the jury.

The feds’ trial against college hoops corruption continues on Monday. (Yahoo Sports illustration)
The feds’ trial against college hoops corruption continues on Monday. (Yahoo Sports illustration)

1. No coaches are going to testify, and so far we haven’t heard a single voice of a coach on any of the wiretaps played in court. That’s sucked the star power out of the trial.

There was an expectation the government would have big-name college coaches discussing payments with Gatto or Dawkins or someone. That hasn’t materialized into evidence. About the only direct interaction with anyone of note came when Gassnola congratulated Louisville coach Rick Pitino, via text, on signing Brian Bowen II. Pitino responded with a thumbs-up emoji. Yawn.

There has been plenty of discussion about what Pitino, Kansas coach Bill Self, Miami’s Jim Larranaga, Arizona’s Sean Miller and others did or didn’t know. It appears the jury isn’t going to hear from them, though, either on the stand or perhaps even on wiretap. At least not from the government, which is expected to call just two more witnesses after Gassnola finishes testifying on Monday.

Are there damaging tapes out there that just haven’t worked their way into the trial? Perhaps, but we haven’t heard them.

2. Does that mean the NCAA doesn’t have anything to work with here?

Everyone wants to know if the NCAA will start investigating and punishing all of these schools that have been mentioned. Make no mistake, despite no big bombshell, there are endless allegations and evidence of violations.

The NCAA now employs a system where it can take third-party evidence and apply it to infractions cases. So, when Brian Bowen Sr., for example, details something under oath at a federal trial, the NCAA can use it and doesn’t need to actually speak to Bowen Sr.

Now, will the association actually move on the myriad violations uncovered? Who knows? Conference commissioners and coaches have felt emboldened enough to claim this isn’t that big of a deal. No one of significance from college sports has bothered to show up and listen to the testimony. It’s quite possible the NCAA just throws its hands up and lets it all slide. We’ll see.

One thing worth noting, though, is that what is presented and said at trial is not all of the evidence. It’s a fraction of it. There are damning tapes out there, according to sources. And someone like Gassnola sat for hours of interviews with prosecutors and the FBI under the penalty of perjury. He may have detailed violations that don’t fit into the government’s case here, but would be of great interest to the NCAA.

3. So far, no big-name coach has been proven to be in violation of NCAA rules.

On wiretap, Dawkins and Code make it clear they don’t believe Pitino knew directly about the $100,000 scheme to pay Brian Bowen Sr. for his son to play at Louisville. It is fair in the court of public opinion to believe he should have known. “Plausible deniability,” as Code put it. There is no direct evidence, though, and it doesn’t appear any of the key participants in the deal thought he knew. Score one for Pitino.

Gassnola did tell the FBI he believed Pitino knew, but Gassnola has also proven to be a braggart. He acknowledged on the stand that he’s told others he spoke to Pitino when he hadn’t in order to seem more influential than he actually was. And on the Bowen deal, Gassnola was not intimately involved.

Gassnola has said Bill Self didn’t know what he was doing with Kansas recruits, either, namely his payments to the families of future Jayhawks Billy Preston ($89,000), Silvio De Sousa ($2,500) and target Deandre Ayton ($15,000). Again, is it fair to assume Self knew, or should have known, that when someone like Gassnola said he was going to “help,” he meant more than just talking up the program? Sure. But so far, no proof of that.

There is also no evidence Larranaga knew what was up with Adidas’ plan to steer Nassir Little to Miami via a payout that might approach $150,000. Likewise, while Arizona gets mentioned about every 15 minutes and the characters in this case believe the Wildcats are willing to pay for pretty much any available recruit out there, there are no direct ties to Sean Miller at this time.

Some assistant coaches are in trouble, though. Gassnola testified he gave former North Carolina State assistant Orlando Early $40,000, upon request from Early, to give to the family of then-recruit Dennis Smith Jr. Bowen Sr. said former Louisville assistant Kenny Johnson personally gave him $1,300. Johnson is now at La Salle. A number of other coaches at DePaul, Creighton and elsewhere were directly named also.

So far, that’s about it.

4. That doesn’t mean they should get comfortable.

Again, there is more evidence and wiretap conversations than are being presented. Also, this is just one trial. If the other two are conducted, some major coaches are expected to be summoned to testify by defense attorneys.

5. Louisville remains in the most precarious position.

The Cardinals were put on probation for so-called Stripper-gate on June 15, 2017. They chose not to dismiss Pitino, so he and his staff remained in place (although not the point man for the prostitutes-in-the-dorm parties, Aaron McGee). Part of the punishment was four years of probation.

Just nine weeks later, Bowen Sr. testified under oath, was the payment from Johnson, the associate head coach and thus second in command of the program. That would be another major violation and falls under the repeat offender clause, which can trigger huge penalties.

Could Louisville end up getting the so-called death penalty for what happened under Rick Pitino’s watch? (AP)
Could Louisville end up getting the so-called death penalty for what happened under Rick Pitino’s watch? (AP)

6. Federal prosecutors win an extraordinarily high percentage of their cases. However, those numbers are skewed by plea bargains. The FBI is able to get such overwhelming evidence, the vast majority of defendants don’t even try to fight.

For the ones that do, the odds are far better. And even in cases where they do, the numbers, depending on how they are calculated, can be inaccurate in the favor of the government. For example, Gassnola and Sood have already plead guilty in this case.

As such, by one way of counting, this proceeding is already a victory for the feds even if Gatto, Code and Dawkins are found not guilty.

7. The Southern District of New York is full of very smart people and lead prosecutor Edward Diskant clearly fits that bill. They don’t bring cases they don’t think they can win.

That said, there is a decent chance they don’t win this time. This is a case about intent, not about action. The defendants all acknowledge they paid out money that, if discovered, would render student athletes ineligible under NCAA statutes.

The government contends this was done against the wishes of the schools and thus defrauded them by making their players ineligible and leaving them open to potentially costly NCAA sanctions. The defense says they were trying to help, not harm, their corporate partners or coaching friends by delivering them great players.

Considering the endless contact between coaches and the defendants and Gassnola’s testimony of literally being asked for money by a N.C. State assistant, the government has an uphill climb to explain how everyone wasn’t working in concert here. Gassnola hasn’t even faced a cross examination from attorneys for Dawkins (Steve Haney) and Code (Mark Moore and Merl Code Sr.) who have all proven to be very good.

The government has trotted out compliance directors at Louisville, Kansas and N.C. State to suggest the schools are vigilant about the rules, but if that is all they have, it’s going to be tight to get the jury to go with it.

Sure, for example, Kansas requires its players and coaches to fill out a lot of forms. But on the other hand, the night before he was enshrined in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, Self and his wife had dinner with Gassnola and his fiancee, the same Gassnola whose AAU team the NCAA suspended because of alleged contacts with agents.

Betting against the feds isn’t wise, but this is no open and shut case.

8. Jim Gatto’s lead attorney, Mike Schachter, has been brutally bad and appears one more incident away from having Judge Lewis A. Kaplan strangle him.

Thursday featured a lengthy speech from Lewis ripping Schachter for violating a previous ruling that prevented the argument that the players are poor and the NCAA is rich so this shouldn’t be a case. Neither the NCAA’s existence or the concept of amateurism is on trial here.

Kaplan’s diatribe came with enough ferocity and reasoning that many in the courtroom, including attorneys, worried Kaplan was going to declare a mistrial. He didn’t. It was probably close, though.

Worse for the defense, Schachter appears incapable of asking simple questions, meanders, has little structure and wastes hours of time flipping through his notes without making any tangible points. He’s almost impossible to follow. Jurors have fallen asleep, exchanged eye rolls and just glared at him in frustration as Kaplan constantly injects for him to “move on.”

At other points, an exhausted Kaplan has told him, “I’m not pleased.” The jury seems to agree.

9. What’s next?

Gassnola will finish his colorful testimony on Monday. The government is expected to call one or two more witnesses and could rest by day’s end or Tuesday at the latest. The defense will get the case after that and none of the defendants are expected to testify. Closing arguments could come as soon as Thursday.

10. Whatever the verdict, this has the potential for a pretty good movie.

Two separate screenwriters have taken in parts of the testimony and a documentary film crew was filming outside the courthouse on Thursday.

The big question everyone wants to know? Who plays Gassnola?

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