NEW YORK – Prospective jurors in the college basketball bribery case were read a list of schools who might come up in the expected month-long trial that should begin with opening arguments Tuesday at the Daniel Patrick Moynihan federal courthouse in Lower Manhattan.
The goal was to weed out any potential conflicts of interest among the jurists, for example if they were a big fan of the program. It also served as a sign of the possible scope of the trial, which U.S. Attorneys once promised could overwhelm the sport of college basketball.
The list was a combination of known targets and new names. Inclusion doesn’t imply wrongdoing, but it might at least cause for some nervous nights until the details are known.
The schools mentioned: Arizona, Creighton, DePaul, Kansas, LSU, Louisville, Miami, North Carolina State, Oklahoma State, Oregon, Southern California and Texas.
A list of names that might come up during the trial, either as witnesses or just in testimony, was also read to the jurors. This too doesn’t imply anything untoward, but does speak to how wide of a net the feds cast during their three-year, FBI-led investigation into the sport.
It featured college coaches such as Sean Miller (Arizona), Bill Self (Kansas). Jim Larrañaga (Miami), Mark Gottfried (formerly of N.C. State), Rick Pitino (formerly of Louisville), current college players Zion Williamson (Duke), Nassir Little (North Carolina), Silvio De Sousa (Kansas) and Romeo Langford (Indiana). It also featured former college players, many of whom are in the NBA now, including Markelle Fultz (Washington/Philadelphia 76ers), DeAndre Ayton (Arizona/Phoenix Suns), Isaiah Whitehead (Seton Hall) and Kyle Kuzma (Utah/Los Angeles Lakers).
There were many more in each category.
Overall it was a laundry list of basketball people, players and operators – including sports agents, AAU basketball coaches, athletic directors, shoe company executives, assistant college coaches and so on.
It’s what has college basketball on edge, turning the 26th-floor courtroom with its wood-paneled walls and impressive views of Midtown into the center of the sport’s universe this October.
The feds’ case against former Adidas executives James Gatto, Merle Code and middleman Christian Dawkins is the first of three such trials scheduled to take place over the next year in front of District Court Judge Lewis A. Kaplan here in the Southern District of New York.
All three have pleaded not guilty and it was revealed at a pre-trial hearing Wednesday that Dawkins turned down a written plea agreement from prosecutors, and Gatto and Dawkins never pursued more than cursory discussions about taking a deal.
The case centers on whether the three men conspired to bribe top high school players to attend college programs that are sponsored by Adidas. In doing so – there is an alleged $100,000 payment for a Louisville player and a $90,000 deal to one who attended Kansas – the schools were defrauded by unwittingly certifying athletes who were ineligible under NCAA statutes.
The defense is expected to attack the concept of codifying NCAA rules and arguing that the schools weren’t victims here, they were the beneficiaries of getting top-line talent to play for their money-producing squads.
While Gatto, Code and Dawkins were all major figures in the grassroots of the sport and on its high-intensity recruiting circuit, only the most hardcore of fans knew their names. As such, the actual verdict of their cases isn’t of great concern to most.
What secrets, backroom deals or blatant payouts are revealed during the trial is another thing. The bigger the names, and the more of them, the bigger the deal this is to college basketball.
If little new is revealed, or fresh allegations center on less-prominent teams – DePaul, really? – then the point of a bunch of recruiting violations being an actual federal case becomes even more baffling.
Only a small percentage of potential jurors who underwent questioning on Monday were aware of the scandal or considered themselves college basketball fans. There were a few, of course, and a little old-school Big East rivalry. One said he supported the University of Connecticut. Another mentioned Syracuse and “not the University of Connecticut.” There were laughs. Other than that, most knew nothing about college athletics and about an equal number of jurists said they were fans of college lacrosse as much as college hoops.
The defense suffered at least a temporary setback Monday morning when Judge Kaplan ruled that for now it could not bring up past controversy involving the schools. He said he was still reviewing the issue.
The defense would like to bring up a scandal at Louisville that featured strippers and prostitutes performing in the basketball dorm as well as the case of now-imprisoned Ponzi-schemer Nevin Shapiro at Miami, which included similarly sordid details. The defense’s goal is to establish that all of college sports is a corrupt circus and the schools that participate in it do so willingly and aren’t victims.
In what might also limit the amount of dirt that gets revealed at the trial, federal prosecutors said they would have “generally agreed” to not bring up additional potential NCAA violations at various schools that Christian Dawkins, a Michigan-based AAU coach and middleman, might know about.
As of now, while the list is long and notable, it certainly could have been longer and more notable. What each entry means remains to be seen. That should begin Tuesday with opening statements.
Until then, college basketball hangs in the balance wondering if this is going to be a bombshell or a dud of a trial.
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