One of the most frequent questions I’ve gotten on talk radio since the college basketball corruption scandal erupted in September 2017 is this: “Could this spill over to football?”
Tuesday in federal court, Marty Blazer started spilling.
The former financial adviser from Pittsburgh, who has pleaded guilty to defrauding clients, appeared as a government witness on the first day of testimony in the second of three college hoops fraud trials. Blazer testified that from 2000-13, he routinely paid top college football players, in violation of NCAA rules, in hopes they would let him invest their money when they made it to the NFL. Blazer said he made payments via cash and Western Union transfers ranging from a couple of hundred dollars to a couple of thousand at a time to players from Pittsburgh, Penn State, Michigan, Notre Dame, Northwestern, Alabama and North Carolina.
Welcome to the party, King Football. A lot of people have been expecting you. If anyone was naive enough to believe this was just a basketball problem in college athletics, it’s time to reconsider.
In the big picture, Blazer’s unexpected splash landing in a football mud puddle probably will create little in terms of a lasting ripple effect. It is titillating information that touches on some blue-blood programs, but the allegations are old and, for the most part, non-specific. The NCAA may want to speak with Blazer, but what he tells them likely isn’t actionable in terms of allegations and sanctions.
Blazer did point fingers directly at Penn State (specifically the father of former player Aaron Maybin and former assistant coach Larry Johnson Sr., now at Ohio State) and North Carolina (specifically former player Hakeem Nicks). Both Johnson and Nicks denied Blazer’s allegations to Yahoo Sports on Tuesday — Johnson firsthand and Nicks via Denver-based attorney Peter Schaffer. Blazer also will be subject to cross-examination from attorneys for defendants Merl Code and Christian Dawkins, who may be able to punch some holes in Blazer’s testimony.
The first implicated football parties are taking a page from the basketball playbook in the first federal trial — deny everything, even what’s said under oath on a witness stand in a federal trial. That may well be enough to make this go away.
But here’s the thing: while Blazer is an undeniably sketchy character, he has no motivation to lie under oath, when the penalty for doing so could be severe. Nor did T.J. Gassnola, a basketball bag man who testified last fall to paying off several people on behalf of Adidas. Perjury isn’t something most people would enter into just to tell a juicy story.
In fact, given what we know about how high-level college athletics works, it’s far easier to believe them than disbelieve them — even if that means casting aspersions upon some supposed Ivory Tower programs like Penn State, Notre Dame and Northwestern.
There have been some momentous and memorable cases of football corruption similar to what Blazer described: Reggie Bush lost a Heisman Trophy and USC was hammered; North Carolina was slammed for a pervasive scam during the Butch Davis Era; Alabama and other SEC schools skated on a payola scheme documented by Yahoo Sports nearly six years ago. But here, on Tuesday, was a financial adviser under oath saying he was breaking NCAA rules with routine impunity, all over the map, for more than a decade.
So, yeah, the smoke is everywhere. Will anyone bother checking for fire?
Will the feds? Doesn’t seem likely. After that bravado-laden press conference in 2017 announcing the investigation into college hoops, the follow-through has been small in scope — so small and cautious that prosecutors are actively trying to limit the public airing of what they know about the sport. If they’re satisfied with nailing a few execs from one sneaker company (but not others) and a few assistant coaches (but not head coaches), expanding their inquiry into an entire other sport would be quite surprising.
Will the NCAA? The Enforcement division would appear to have quite enough on its hands already chasing FBI leads on the hoops front. (That, and hammering mighty Cal Poly for giving out too much money in book aid to athletes.) Marty Blazer could walk into headquarters in Indianapolis tomorrow and he might be told to sit down and take a number like it’s the DMV.
Will the schools themselves? Hahahahahahaha. The cash cow of modern college athletics is as safe as a heifer in Nepal. If there is one thing we’ve learned in the last few years it’s this: integrity is for press conference sound bites; self-investigation is for suckers.
So the concept of college football being as coast-to-coast compromised as college basketball is likely to be both widely accepted and widely ignored.
But it was nice of Marty Blazer to assert, for the record, that the business of paying players isn’t just a hoops thing.
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