Adidas Cleared in Ex-Louisville Recruit’s NCAA Racketeering Suit

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Former Indiana Pacers player Brian Bowen suffered a legal defeat on Wednesday in his racketeering lawsuit against Adidas. U.S. District Judge Joseph Anderson granted summary judgment for the athletic footwear company and its alleged conspirators. He reasoned that possible harm to Bowen’s basketball career by leaving Louisville amid controversy didn’t supply a persuasive legal theory.

Three years ago, Bowen sued Adidas, along with individuals tied to a widespread college basketball corruption scandal, for violating the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). He and his attorneys have maintained that Adidas, its consultants, AAU coaches and college coaches harmed five-star recruits by inducing them to enroll at North Carolina State, Kansas, Louisville and other Adidas-sponsored universities.

Bowen’s father, Brian Bowen Sr., testified in a 2018 criminal trial that he was made a cash offer of $100,000 by Adidas-connected people. In exchange, Bowen Sr. would ensure that his son, a top 20 recruit in 2017, would attend Louisville and play for Rick Pitino. The criminal trial involved former Adidas director of global marketing James Gatto, former Adidas consultant and basketball organizer Merl Code and client recruiter (runner) Christian Dawkins. They were ultimately convicted of wire fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud. The trio, who lost their federal appeal in January, are named co-defendants in Bowen’s lawsuit.

RICO has generally not applied to sports controversies, with the FIFA corruption scandal a noteworthy exception. It has more often been used to pursue Wall Street swindlers, drug cartels, mafia enterprises, illegal gambling establishments and other rackets that engage in various forms of bribery, money laundering and fraud. In civil lawsuits, successful RICO claims carry treble (three times) damages.

Bowen maintains that each conspirator stood to gain by preying on those who were “unsophisticated and come from poor or modest backgrounds” and who easily “became pawns.” Adidas, Bowen argues, saw its prominence enhanced when sponsored programs succeeded. Those programs won more games and developed players who would become NBA lottery picks. Adidas could thus better compete with Nike, New Balance, Under Armour and other rivals. Other alleged conspirators received financial compensation or influence over potential NBA stars, including the possibility of representing them in future business dealings.

Bowen, 22, believes this alleged racket badly wounded his future. Suspended by Louisville in the wake of the scandal, he then transferred to South Carolina but couldn’t play immediately due to the NCAA’s transfer rule, which required him to first complete one full academic year of residence. Bowen, unsure if or when the NCAA would allow him to play, left the U.S. in 2018 to play professionally with the Sydney Kings of the Australian NBL.

Bowen was eligible for the 2019 NBA draft but went unselected. The Pacers signed him to a two-way contract that July and had spent most of the last two seasons playing for the Pacers’ G League affiliate, the Fort Wayne Mad Ants. In 2020-21, he appeared in 15 Mad Ants games, averaging 12 points and eight rebounds in 34 minutes. Bowen also played briefly in six Pacers games. The team waived him last month.

Even though his family received $25,000 (the remaining $75,000 was never paid, as the would-be payers were arrested), Bowen insists he was irreparably harmed. He could no longer play college basketball and lost out on coaching that could have better prepared him for the pros.

Judge Anderson wasn’t convinced, reasoning that Bowen’s arguments lack “sound legal principles.” To that end, the judge stressed that Bowen “voluntarily relinquished” his Louisville scholarship by transferring to South Carolina, suggesting the “loss” of scholarship was therefore Bowen’s choice.

Judge Anderson added that courts have consistently rejected the proposition that membership on a college team equates to a “contractual right to play [college] basketball” or that an athletic scholarship should be considered a protectable property. He also cited precedent indicating that “hopes for careers” in college sports are simply “too speculative” to warrant protection.

Judge Anderson was similarly skeptical about legal arguments related to the kind of NBA career Bowen envisioned. Bowen argues that the bribe set in motion a chain of events that led to him not being selected in the first round of the 2019 NBA draft. Under this theory, Bowen lost out on millions of dollars in guaranteed NBA salaries and possible endorsements—plus, under RICO, those damages would have been automatically tripled. Judge Anderson flatly rejected this concept. He stressed that Bowen only possessed a “mere expectation” and “not an entitlement” to any sort of NBA career. Such an expectation, like other hoop dreams, is inherently speculative and not a RICO-protected interest.

In an interesting footnote, Judge Anderson stressed that success as a college athlete in no way guarantees success in a pro draft or pro league. He did so by referencing, though not by name, former Clemson offensive lineman Mitch Hyatt. The judge, a Clemson alumnus (class of 1972), described Hyatt as “a highly-touted offensive lineman for a major university in South Carolina, [who] set school records for career starts and snaps played; was a three-time first-team All-Atlantic Coast Conference selection; and twice won the Jacobs Blocking Trophy as the best blocker in the ACC.” Hyatt nonetheless “went undrafted following his senior year [in 2019].” Hyatt’s story didn’t end there. The Dallas Cowboys signed him as an undrafted free agent and he remains on their roster. The judge’s point was nonetheless clear: Even if Bowen had succeeded in college, that wouldn’t have guaranteed him draft position or NBA success.

Bowen can appeal Judge Anderson’s ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

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