College basketball fraud trial: We're at this point because the NCAA is ethically bankrupt

Columnist
Yahoo Sports

NEW YORK – During his sophomore year of high school in Saginaw, Michigan, Brian “Tugs” Bowen II was offered a summer job. It was a heck of a good one – Adidas allegedly would pay him $25,000 to play basketball for its Michigan Mustangs AAU team.

Twenty-five grand. One summer.

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It sounds absurd, but Tugs’ father, Brian Bowen Sr., didn’t just testify Thursday in federal court that he received the money. Prosecutors showed wire transfers that delivered at least some of the payments.

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The most profound and revealing part, though, was when Bowen almost shrugged about it, like this should be common knowledge.

“Tugs was one of the top players in the country,” Bowen Sr. testified. “Every shoe company wants good players on their teams.”

Twenty-five thousand for one summer may seem like a bad business decision, but Adidas didn’t get so big and successful by accident. That’s its risk. The market was set, anyway, by competition from Nike and Under Armour.

The real issue is: Why is this even a problem? Or shocking? Maybe for those who haven’t been paying attention or came of age at a time when high school sophomore basketball players weren’t worth a dime.

Is it in non-compliance of NCAA rules? Absolutely. But isn’t that the tail wagging the dog?

If a multinational, multibillion dollar corporation wants to identify a teenager, negotiate a deal with his parents and pay him significant money to go work for them in the summer, then why would anyone care, other than to congratulate the Bowens?

Call it a (well-)paid internship if you will. No one is getting hurt here. No one.

And if Adidas’ real motivation was to establish a relationship with a kid who projects to be a coveted and highly valued employee down the road, then would anyone care if a Silicon Valley tech company did the same with the members of a math team it views as future coding geniuses?

The college basketball bribery trial that continues next week in federal court here is ostensibly to resolve wire fraud and conspiracy charges against would-be sports agent Christian Dawkins and Adidas executives Jim Gatto and Merl Code.

What it’s really about is the federal government codifying NCAA rules into laws. Watching prosecutors fumble about in that attempt last week only further revealed the absurdity of the task.

“I’ve seen better presentations,” Judge Lewis A. Kaplan cracked earlier this week after one clumsy argument.

NCAA president Mark Emmert doesn’t have the courage to make an appearance at the federal fraud trial in New York. (AP)
NCAA president Mark Emmert doesn’t have the courage to make an appearance at the federal fraud trial in New York. (AP)

On one side, the government is pointing to NCAA documents and official-sounding statues as what is right. And on the other there are witnesses such as Bowen (a prosecution witness no less) pulling back the curtain and showing what’s real – namely that the wheels of capitalism make the NCAA rulebook obsolete and everyone, absolutely everyone, inside the sport knows it.

In this country, you are worth what someone will pay you. Unless you’re a college athlete. Or, these days, even project to be a college athlete. It’s bad enough for the NCAA to try to limit compensation while the players are enrolled and receiving a full scholarship – a valuable deal but well below market value for top talent.

It’s unconscionable for the NCAA to say its rules also apply years before a player is of college age, while providing no guarantee the player would be a college athlete. If these are truly amateurs, then the NCAA should have less control over them, not more. And while players don’t technically have to go to college, the NCAA is well aware that under current NFL and NBA draft rules, they pretty much do.

“College basketball is the top proving ground for the NBA,” Bowen Sr. noted.

The NCAA still believes a player doesn’t have true value until the player enters the pro ranks. The fact is, these days the “pro ranks” begin before college, not after. If someone is willing to pay you to play, you’re a professional. The NCAA is just in the middle, which is why its coaches, as Bowen detailed extensively, are willing to offer massive amounts in an underground economy to get players.

Teenagers can be major influencers on product sales and brand building to other teenagers. A great basketball player is of great value. The market is speaking.

This is 2018, not 1945.

If the NCAA just allowed the Bowens to take that job with Adidas, then none of this is a problem. Instead they had to do everything under the table, and link up with an uncertified agent and two back-channeling shoe executives that caused all of them to wind up in court. At one point Bowen Sr. testified Adidas’ Chris Rivers handed him $4,000 in cash in the parking lot of an AAU event. It was the start of many secret payments as the Bowens meandered through the system.

Everyone involved wishes this could just be done out in the open.

The NCAA, however, would rather say that a family – or any family of a kid who might (but with no guarantee) play college hoops – remain poor (or poorer) because … well, just because.

That’s all this is. You can’t help your family with the bills. You can’t earn money to put away for your future. You can’t get your mother into a better apartment. You have to wait and hope the same opportunity is there later.

We, however, can switch jobs and renegotiate contracts and take millions and millions in Adidas dollars.

Why? Who knows? Is there concern the shoe company would then have a say in the player’s college decision? Well, that’s been going on for decades. Are they worried this will somehow “ruin” the player? Please check your paternalism and puritanism.

No, this is about control, including controlling finances. A college scholarship is compensation and is not worthless. However, it is only applicable when the athlete arrives on campus. At the very least, the NCAA should be hands off until enrollment.

Amateurism may not do much for the kids, but it sure is lucrative for the coaches, conference commissioners and athletic directors who cling to it.

For people such as NCAA president Mark Emmert, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany and Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby to deny Tugs Bowen a job, to tell him and his family they need to keep scraping by in Saginaw because there is some nobility in being an amateur, is ethically bankrupt.

They should be shamed, but it’s a shameless lot. Emmert and the others lack even the courage to come to Lower Manhattan to listen to the reality of the sport and the families and the kids that have made each of them generationally wealthy. They’d rather stay away, bury their head in the sand and commission some “blue ribbon” committee headed by Condoleezza Rice to tell them whatever predetermined truth they are desperate to hear.

Rinse, repeat, cash the check.

A multinational corporation allegedly went to Saginaw and offered a high school sophomore a glorious opportunity. It could help him. It could help his family. It could help his future.

The NCAA finds this objectionable, a bad and terrible thing that must be stomped out, even prosecuted.

It seems like the wrong people are on trial here.

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