FBI surveillance videos show how college athletics is a cesspool, but NCAA doesn't care enough to watch

Dan WetzelColumnist
College basketball's pay-for-play culture has been on trial in New York City, but no one from the NCAA, not even president Mark Emmert, has bothered to show up. (AP)
College basketball's pay-for-play culture has been on trial in New York City, but no one from the NCAA, not even president Mark Emmert, has bothered to show up. (AP)

NEW YORK – Christian Dawkins, Marty Blazer and an undercover FBI agent took a business trip together to Las Vegas. In an effort to appear like a budding, big-money sports agency that could make it rain across college basketball, they rented a hotel suite at the Cosmopolitan.

This was no regular room, either. It had a view of the Strip and blue accent lighting and its own bar just off the living room.

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It was big enough to entertain a parade of college basketball assistant coaches in town for a recruiting tournament. The coaches were there to pledge their willingness to sell their players out to Dawkins agency in exchange for the agency providing them the cash that they could use to buy the next round of high school recruits.

Every single guy who walked into that suite should have sensed it was a setup. It looked straight out of the movies — and indeed, there were cameras, albeit hidden by the feds, recording every second of it.

The assistant coaches, as well as Dawkins, were blind to it all though, likely by a measure of desperation over their never-ending need for cash — or “resources” in the recruiting lingo — that they could dole out to recruits, their families, their AAU coaches, trainers, uncles and who knows who the hell else.

Without money, there is no recruiting success. None. That much was made clear, over and over and over, especially by coaches who were fighting the sports' so-called "Blue Bloods" — Duke, North Carolina, Kansas and Kentucky — that they believe are awash in money to spend on the best prospects.

“They’ve got a lot of resources,” Dawkins explained during one meeting that was played Thursday during his federal bribery trial here in Lower Manhattan. “And they’ve got a lot of existing relations with agents, agencies, runners and … Nike.”

In another conversation, Merl Code, a co-defendant in this case, declared, “In some form or fashion, Duke, North Carolina, Syracuse, Kentucky, all of the schools are doing something to help get kids. That’s just part of the space.”

That space is what begat this space, a decked-out suite on the Strip for meetings with assistant coaches from second and third-tier programs trying to keep up with the powerhouses. In and out they came, sometimes wearing university apparel — Arizona, Arizona State, Creighton, Southern Cal, TCU, Oklahoma State, Alabama and so on.

Some got envelopes full of cash — $13,000 here, $6,000 there, plus monthly stipends. Others just had to promise to get any NBA-bound player they coached to sign agency, financial planning and business management contracts with Dawkins, Blazer and the undercover agent. If so, the spigot might open for them.

“Whatever you need me to do, I’ll do it,” then-Alabama assistant coach Yasir Rosemond said on tape, echoing just about everyone’s sentiment. Rosemond didn’t get any money that day or perhaps ever — maybe he knew this was a trap and just wanted to leave.

Or maybe he was like the rest of them, dying for money to compete.

The thing that stood out most as the government played hours of these video tapes Thursday, was the casual anguish in some of their voices. This all seemed perfectly comfortable and normal — getting an envelope of money from a couple guys they didn’t know (Blazer, the undercover agent) because Dawkins (who they did trust) naively vouched for them.

“You [would] have the resources and ammunition, if [you] need it,” Dawkins told then UConn assistant Raphael Chillious of how the deal would help him. Chillious got no money, but he pledged his “1000-percent” support to the idea and made it was clear he needed money for recruiting.

“And you know [I] need,” Chillious said, jokingly.

This is college basketball. This is college athletics. This, playing out on FBI video recording after FBI video recording, is the entire outrageous enterprise that isn’t just corrupt, it is depressing.

It would be more acceptable if this was about players getting some money — even if it was under the table. But what’s clear as you watch all of this is that it is rarely the actual player getting the money. It’s maybe a family member. Or maybe a hanger-on. It's maybe an intermediary, who has set up an entire business around working angles and then tricking kids into bad decisions.

Consider that college assistants offered no hesitation in steering their very own players to this crew.

Yet the assistants had no knowledge of these guys’ acumen, no reason to believe they’d be good at handling money or negotiating contracts. Blazer was the supposed financial guy, but he’d lost his trading license and is a complete snake who has pleaded guilty to numerous federal felonies related to stealing about $2.3 million from his clients. He's facing as many as 67 years in prison.

The undercover agent was, obviously, a complete fake and not qualified for any of these jobs. And Dawkins, as street-smart and ambitious as he is, was in his early 20s not an actual sports agent.

You could hardly find a worse team to represent a young multi-millionaire athlete, but no one cared to even consider that, research that, look into that.

They just wanted to sell the kids for money that they could use to buy more kids. Rinse. Repeat. Who cares if the original guy gets bilked by Blazer?

This is what these NCAA rules bring about — a culture that attracts cheats and criminals because, well, what reputable financial adviser would try to get clients this way? That's what the NCAA should be ashamed about, a rulebook that not just denies players a cut of the financial pie, but turns them into bait and then surrounds them with sharks.

At one point a Clemson assistant named Steve Smith showed up in the suite. He was particularly eager for anything he could get because he had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity in front of him — Zion Williamson, who just happened to live a 1-hour, 4-minute drive from campus.

Smith knew precisely how long the trip took because his GPS had taken him to Williamson’s house numerous times, even though that was against NCAA rules. During those trips, though, he said, he had developed a relationship with Williamson’s stepdad. (Since those trips were NCAA-illegal, Smith never told his boss, head coach Brad Brownell about them. When they were finally allowed to take a permissible recruiting drive there, Smith joked that he had to pretend to take some wrong turns so not to clue in Brownell.)

Smith needed money, he believed, for Williamson, who if not for geography would never have considered a school such as Clemson. He felt completely outgunned by the other contenders — Duke, North Carolina and Kentucky. They’ve got the real resources.

Clemson assistant coach Steve Smith (right) is heard on an FBI surveillance video talking about NCAA-illegal trips to the home of Zion Williamson. (Getty Images)
Clemson assistant coach Steve Smith (right) is heard on an FBI surveillance video talking about NCAA-illegal trips to the home of Zion Williamson. (Getty Images)

“It’s like me, Roy Williams, Mike Krzyzewski and [John Calipari],” Smith said on the tape. He later implied that Clemson has resources, too, and the close-knit nature of the school and small town its located in helps.

“That’s why football is so successful,” Smith said. “If you do it and use resources at Clemson, like you can really keep everything tight.”

Dawkins understood the position Smith was in.

“[Zion’s recruitment] is going to be crazy,” Dawkins said. “Duke is going to have their resources. UNC is UNC. Kentucky, they have their resources.”

Smith was set to secretly meet with Williamson’s stepfather the next night at a locale that he said was a 30-40 minute drive from the Strip, like some kind of mafia movie script. Once Smith found out what was needed to sign Williamson, he was told to tell Dawkins and they’d bring the “resources" to make things fair.

“We’ll be able to make sure everything’s good for the parent and everything,” Dawkins said.

That was just one direct request during the meetings. Blazer testified that the crew gave $11,700 in cash to Orlando-based AAU coach Brad Augustine on behalf of Louisville assistant Jordan Fair for recruiting consideration of a 7-footer from overseas.

There was also the time that a pressing request came in for money from the father of Robert Williams, then a star player at Texas A&M. Blazer testified that he, the undercover agent and Dawkins promptly went down to a store inside the Cosmopolitan and bought a pair of shoes.

“The undercover gave Christian $11,000 [in cash],” Blazer testified. " … Christian put the money in a pair of shoes and we sent the shoes via FedEx right then [down to Texas].”

Shoe money. Of course.

Another time USC assistant Tony Bland arrived at the suite, straight off the USC school plane, according to Blazer, to collect $13,000 in an envelope. Bland, according to Blazer, said he was headed back to Los Angeles and needed the cash for then recruit Marvin Bagley III, who was on campus for a visit.

“[Bland said], ‘When Marvin Bagley signs with USC, I need you guys on campus the minute he signs and we'll understand what he needs and we’ll get it to his family, ASAP,’” Blazer testified. In exchange, Bland would send Bagley to their agency.

Bagley, of course, played for Duke. So did Williamson.

There is no proof that any of the players, parents, or anyone else, ever got any money that was handed over to the assistant coaches. There isn’t much definitive proof in anything. For all of this to be false though, hundreds of people would have to be playing pretend. In totality, it's all true, even if there will always be enough specific uncertainty that schools can brush it aside and issue statements about their commitment to compliance.

This trial isn’t about who the NCAA is going to bust, though.

This is about the trial busting the NCAA altogether.

Or that it should. You couldn’t sit through Thursday and not see a farcical operation that clings to rules that almost no one follows, yet because they exist, leave the young athletes surrounded by middlemen, compromised ethics and con jobs courtesy of the colleges own coaching staffs.

Yet despite the truth coming out, once again not a single NCAA administrator, athletic director, compliance officer or conference commissioner dared to show up Thursday to the Moynihan Federal Courthouse.

Most of the seats in courtroom 23B were empty, because Mark Emmert and Jim Delany and John Swofford would rather ignore this entire thing or claim they are getting briefed on details than hear the truth.

They don’t want to hear about “astronomical offers” from Oregon, or allegations of agents in Durham or listen to assistant coaches so beaten down by the system they find themselves on FBI tapes.

They don’t want to consider how their rulebook created a courtroom where Blazer, a man who stole money from people, is testifying against Dawkins and Code, who gave money to people.

“It’s a mess," Code said on tape at one point, "because there’s so much money involved."

College athletics was laid bare once again on Thursday, from a Vegas hotel suite all the way to the very top of the game.

It was ugly and pathetic in ways that the trite debates over amateurism can’t understand. It's begging for complete and utter reform.

And no one with any power to change it cared enough to come and watch.

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