As college basketball evolved into a billion-dollar enterprise, it operated with an uneasy alliance. The NCAA tournament contracts escalated into the billions, the sneaker contracts into hundreds of millions and the coaching salaries nearing $5 million annually. All of that cash was being made thanks to the athletic talents of players who couldn’t directly profit from their performance.
As a billion-dollar business fueled by essentially unpaid labor continued to grow, a sophisticated and bustling black market emerged over the decades. The NCAA made half-hearted attempts to police and legislate it, but it lacked both the tools and general interest to fully expose the sport’s underbelly.
After 10 arrests and more than 100 pages of court documents in three separate complaints, the federal government on Tuesday shined an unsparing light on the thriving black market of college basketball. It will be remembered as a day of reckoning, a sport indelibly changed with an airing of its schemes, scams and secrets. It’s a tangled web of agents, financial advisors and sneaker companies, one that the feds took two years to meticulously unwind. “Today is the day that college basketball lost its virginity,” said Sonny Vaccaro, a longtime sneaker company rep who has transformed late in life to an anti-NCAA crusader.
On Monday night, assistant coaches from Oklahoma State, Arizona, USC and Auburn were arrested by the FBI. Six others with ties to the enterprise went down with them amid charges of bribery, conspiracy and fraud. In a sport where corruption, brown bags of cash and backroom deals are so prevalent they’ve become lore, a chilling question reverberated: How deep will this all go? As one former NCAA official told Yahoo Sports on Tuesday: “This may be the biggest college sports story of our lifetime and, ironically, the least surprising.”
How many high-profile coaches will lose their jobs? How many players will be ensnared and lose their eligibility? How many programs will be wrecked? It’s hard to say now, but the damage will be extensive and significant. If the federal government has a thirst for more, today will be just the beginning.
“The only thing that’s amazing is that it has taken so long for something like this to happen,” said an athletic director at a Power Five school, who asked to remain anonymous. “I do think that this is really the beginning of the expose, and it’s something that will consume college athletics for two or three years.”
Athletic departments around the country are facing hard choices. For scandal-scarred Louisville, the question looms whether Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino can survive the allegation that Adidas, which sponsors Louisville, arranged for a six-figure payment for a recruit to attend the school. (That’s on top of all of the other scandals Louisville has been involved with, which includes arranging prostitutes for recruits.) Can Auburn’s Bruce Pearl, already the veteran of a searing NCAA scandal that cost him his job at Tennessee, survive? There are allegations that Pearl’s top assistant, Chuck Person, took bribes to steer a player to a financial adviser. Can Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs, already engulfed in a scandal in his softball program, survive yet another brush fire on his watch?
Arizona and USC have preseason top 10 teams and are contenders to reach the Final Four, but assistant coaches at both places were scooped up by authorities. Will their schools allow head coaches Sean Miller and Andy Enfield, who are not mentioned in the legal documents, continue to coach in this era where the NCAA is demanding head coach accountability? Everyone is watching and waiting.
“Maybe this will finally be the moment when they show how corrupt some of these top programs are?” said the Power Five Athletic Director. “If some of the indicted cooperate, and I’m sure they will, this could go on for a long time.”
Few who’ve spent time around the sport are really surprised.
Sit in enough bleachers at AAU tournaments, and you’ll inevitably hear the types of things the federal government alleged in its paperwork on Monday. Six-figure payments for players and kickbacks to deliver players to agents and financial planners are part of the sport’s daily discourse. Heck, it’s not uncommon to hear about kids and their people demanding $10,000 to just visit a school. Navigating that underworld has evolved into a bigger part of college basketball coaching than the actual, well, coaching. And on Tuesday, part of that underworld was exposed to daylight, leaving college athletics officials bracing for the impact on the sport. “This morning has been amazing,” said the former NCAA official. “Every one is shaken. It’s safe to assume all of those coaches weren’t operating in a vacuum.”
So what happens if the indicted cooperate? How many Adidas schools could be impacted if Jim Gatto, the director of global sports marketing, tells all. Merl Code, another Adidas employee arrested and charged via the FBI probe, is a veteran of the Nike grassroots before going to Adidas. “He’s the key,” said a grassroots basketball source. “That’s what no one is talking about. He knows where all the bodies were buried at both Nike and Adidas.”
Early Tuesday morning, a high-major assistant coach called Yahoo Sports and summed up the day’s happenings this way: “It’s like someone left the playbook in the opposing locker room. And now all the plays are out. That’s what essentially happened. This stuff has been going on for 20 years. The tentacles on this one, you don’t know where it leads. It’s scary.”
An hour later, at the press conference in New York, FBI assistant director William Sweeney declared: “We have your playbook.” And he hinted that there’s more coming: “Our investigation is ongoing and we are conducting additional interviews as we speak.”
The playbook for buying players and taking bribes and kickbacks has been opened. The underbelly has come up from the underground. The only thing certain on Tuesday, was that this news shook the sport to its core. Consider this just the beginning.
View the indictments here: