With college hoops trial set to begin, will feds expose the sport's dirty details?

The first of three federal trials into college basketball corruption begins this week. (AP file photo)
The first of three federal trials into college basketball corruption begins this week. (AP file photo)

NEW YORK – The federal trial of a sneaker executive, a B-list hustler and a grassroots basketball mainstay begins in Lower Manhattan this week. They face felony charges that include conspiracy and wire fraud as alleged orchestrators of an elaborate scheme to essentially manipulate the system to sell basketball players to preferred colleges. It marks the first of three scheduled federal trials in a sweeping corruption case that shook the sport more than a year ago.

The defendants’ families will fill wooden pews at the Daniel P. Monahan Courthouse, as the defendants face jail time and the indelible stain of federal felony charges. But the fates of Adidas executive Jim Gatto, low-level runner Christian Dawkins and Adidas employee Merl Code in Judge Lewis A. Kaplan’s courtroom loom as just a subplot in a trial that has riveted the basketball industry from grassroots to the NBA.

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Starting on Monday, we’ll find out if the entire sport is truly on trial as many predicted last September, when 10 men were arrested and the feds staged an elaborate news conference. The biggest question hanging over this trial remains simple: Will there be more light shined on exactly how college basketball’s black market operates? If the feds do indeed “have your playbook,” as New York FBI Assistant Director in Charge William Sweeney memorably boasted a year ago, this trial should allow everyone to read the pages.

Officials inside and outside the case told Yahoo Sports the collateral damage to coaches and programs through potential NCAA violations that could be revealed may end up as the most newsworthy elements of the trial. Still looming over the case are 330 days of federal monitoring that could come out in the three trials, which includes 4,000 intercepted calls, countless text messages and thousands of documents and bank records. Multiple sources indicated that programs previously not connected to the case are likely to be implicated via potential NCAA violations.

“Over the course of these three trials, you’re going to see major programs get touched by this, and the nature of how business is done is going to be exposed,” said a source with knowledge of the investigation. “The question is, ‘How many?’ The coaches who are mixed up in this are used to controlling everything, and they’ll have no control in how all this comes out.”

The first trial – USA vs. Gatto, et al – projects to play out over the month of October, if not longer. The most intrigue revolves around the wiretaps, text messages and other communication between coaches, assistant coaches and Dawkins and the Adidas representatives. The witness list doesn’t appear to have any bombshells. There’s no Bill Self, Mark Gottfried or Rick Pitino, prominent coaches whose programs or former programs have been implicated in the scheme. The list is more of a compilation of compliance officers, expert witnesses and cooperators – such as prominent former Adidas grassroots executive T.J. Gassnola, who has agreed to plead guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud.

The fact that none of the three defendants in this case have pled out is particularly rare; statistics say that more than 90 percent of defendants in federal trials end up taking pleas. (The New York Times reported in 2016 that number was as high as 97 percent in a recent year.) There’s no expectation that will change before jury selection begins this week, setting the stage for a compelling trial once the prosecution lays its cards on the table. They have held those cards closely since that splashy 2017 news conference announcing the charges.

“We don’t know yet whether that relative silence following the indictments is evidence of a weak case or someone methodically putting their evidence together and being ready to put it forward at trial,” said Stephen L. Hill Jr., a partner at Dentons in Kansas City and former U.S. Attorney who prosecuted a case against AAU coach Myron Piggie in the early 2000s.

No one doubts the potential for fireworks in terms of NCAA violations being revealed. The NCAA appears to expect this as well, as sources told Yahoo Sports lawyers and enforcement representatives from the association are expected to be among the observers in the courtroom.

“To date, the results have not matched the show [of the news conference last year],” said Stu Brown, an Atlanta-based attorney who specializes in NCAA rules cases. “But I don’t know how far into the game we are. To date, only the feds know. Any coach or administrator who presumes all that has happened is all that is going to happen is on shaky ground. That might turn out to be the case, but I certainly wouldn’t stake my livelihood on it.”

From a legal perspective, the case offers a compelling tension: a strong set of facts for the prosecutors that potentially could be undermined by thorny legal logic. The facts are laid out in the charging documents and superseding indictment – detailed records, for example, of cash payments by Gassnola to help Kansas land recruit Silvio De Sousa (“another $20,000 payment”) and Gatto and Gassnola helping “funnel payments” of $90,000 to a parent of former Jayhawk Billy Preston. There are more specifics, including $40,000 cash from Gassnola to a coach at N.C. State to keep the commitment of prize recruit Dennis Smith Jr. Gatto used “sham invoices” to reimburse him, according to the feds. There’s also evidence of a deal for a $100,000 payment from Adidas to secure Brian Bowen’s commitment to Louisville.

The trick will come with convincing a jury that schools like Kansas, N.C. State and Louisville were defrauded in alleged deals that resulted in players who either helped or would have helped those programs succeed on the court. That’s counterintuitive logic, since the alleged payments secured commitments of talented players. By arguing that there really is no victim here, defense lawyers may well attempt to rebut the very idea that the defendants committed crimes.

“They have a firm belief they did not commit a crime,” said a source who has been briefed on the case. “If they tried to conceal anything from anybody, it’s the NCAA, not the government.”

That’s another reason the potential NCAA ramifications could steal the headlines from the criminal proceedings. While formal NCAA investigations could be years away, the roadmap could be supplied for the organization’s enforcement department by the government — especially if the defense attorneys attempt to prove how pervasive corruption is in the sport. “It’s in the NCAA’s interest to see if, essentially, the feds can do their work for them,” Brown said.

While any time in federal prison is daunting, it would be a surprise to legal experts if any of the defendants end up with more than five years if they are found guilty. This is tricky to predict, as the length would be tied to the amount of monetary loss that could be proven. That could be arbitrary, as the dollar amounts aren’t particularly significant unless the revenue potentially lost from vacated NCAA tournament appearances is factored into the equation.

Thus experts suggest sentences could be doled out in months, as opposed to many years, if any of the defendants are found guilty. The legacy of this upcoming case could well end up being the blowback tied to programs alleged to be involved – Louisville, N.C. State, Kansas, Miami – and the realistic expectation it could impact programs not yet involved. “You should never be surprised at what unanticipated consequences come out at a criminal trial,” Hill said.

And for the schools that have been directly implicated or had cursory ties to the case, the next few months could be telling of how seriously they’ve taken the self-investigation process required by the NCAA shortly after the scandal blew up last fall.

“There are relatively low-major programs that did thorough investigations, hired outside counsel, produced written reports, involved the board of trustees,” Brown said. “On the other hand, there were some Power Five schools that just had compliance people go in and talk to the coaches, maybe look at some records, and kept it in-house.”

With a sport potentially on trial, there could be a lot of nervous administrators the next few weeks.

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