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Inside the biggest NCAA basketball scandal ever

There wasn’t anything Marty Blazer wouldn’t do for his clients, as Guy Lawson explains in “Hot Dog Money: Inside the Biggest Scandal in the History of College Sports” (Little A).

As financial manager for a clutch of highly-rated college athletes, he considered himself a big brother to his young charges. “Blazer did whatever they needed and had their backs whenever they screwed up,” writes Lawson.

From obtaining Valtrex for players with STDs to organizing what he called “CSI cleanings” of apartments when players hooked up with women they shouldn’t, nothing was too much trouble.

Once, he even got emergency medical help for a player’s date whose breast implants had burst.

“Blazer had to find a doctor for the girl, lest her life be in jeopardy,” the journalist recounts.

FBI Agent Scott Carpenter was an unlikely participant in the controversy and embezzled $13,500 during the FBI’s sting operation. TNS
FBI Agent Scott Carpenter was an unlikely participant in the controversy and embezzled $13,500 during the FBI’s sting operation. TNS

Louis Martin “Marty” Blazer III was a Pittsburgh-based financial advisor who looked after gifted college football and basketball players on their journey to the professional game.

But he was also a hustler, a thief and a liar.

Whenever he gave his pitch to a prospective signing, he always said the same thing. “He said he came from the future, and he knew how the story would play out — the money, girlfriends, family demands, hangers-on, real estate, and investment opportunities,” writes Lawson.

Author Guy Lawson Karen Pearson
Author Guy Lawson Karen Pearson

And so what if the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) had rules against paying players and their friends and family, it was nothing he couldn’t circumnavigate.  “I had never had to try too hard to disguise what I was doing,” he told Lawson in a series of interviews.

“Use cash, don’t create a paper trail, don’t talk about breaking the rules on the phone — it was simple to circumvent NCAA rules. “

But Blazer had other ideas for his clients’ money. There were movies he wanted to make and a music management company he wanted to get going — and they required investment.

Initially, it was easy pickings for Blazer, not just because the NCAA lacked the teeth to investigate wrongdoing but also because too many people in college sport were doing very nicely from the arrangements.

In short, everyone was at it.

As he told Lawson: “The NCAA was a joke. Everyone involved in college sports knew that the NCAA regulators were incompetent fools.

“The coaches and agents and financial advisers and runners all knew they were in on a good thing and that scandals helped no one in the long term when the status quo was so lucrative.”

In 2013, officials with the Securities and Exchange Commission began investigating Blazer over allegations he defrauded five of his clients, taking around $2.5 million of their money and investing it in his vanity projects.

As the investigation progressed, Blazer admitted paying college athletes on the understanding they became his clients when they turned professional, a practice outlawed by NCAA rules.

Among the charges Blazer faced were wire fraud, identity theft, securities fraud and making false statements and documents.

Faced with a lengthy prison sentence, Blazer took the only option available — to become a “cooperating informant” and assist the FBI in their investigations into corruption in college sport and the NCAA.

The scandal revealed a level of indifference on the part of the NCAA to bad business behavior throughout the organization. Getty Images
The scandal revealed a level of indifference on the part of the NCAA to bad business behavior throughout the organization. Getty Images

“I was an insider who spoke the language,” he told Lawson.

As part of operation “Ballerz,” Blazer posed as a business manager, helping the FBI make hundreds of recordings that detailed the extent of corruption at play in the NCAA, with vast sums of “Hot Dog Money” changing hands in order to steer athletes towards certain schools or brands, often without the students’ knowledge.

The trade in players was nothing short of immoral. “It didn’t seem like they [the FBI] understood how big what was happening was — the trafficking of kids at the hands of their trusted coaches,” Blazer told Lawson.

With Blazer’s assistance, the FBI penetrated the dark underbelly of college sport where conmen operated with impunity, resulting in 11 indictments and 10 convictions for crimes relating to bribes paid to athletes, their relatives and coaches, including ones for coaches from Oklahoma State, Arizona, Southern California and Auburn, and prison sentences for an Adidas executive, Merl Code, and two associates.

Code’s pursuit of basketball player Brian Bowen Jr. was typical of the kind of operation that carried out.

As one of the most sought-after players in collegiate basketball, Bowen had turned down offers from colleges including Michigan State, UCLA and Arizona to take a place at the Adidas-affiliated University of Louisville.

George Clooney is slated to help turn “Hot Dog Money” into a movie. Getty Images
George Clooney is slated to help turn “Hot Dog Money” into a movie. Getty Images

During the FBI’s investigation, however, it transpired a six-figure sum had been given to Bowen’s father as a sweetener and Code, who worked as a consultant to Adidas, was the man who made it happen.

Inevitably, it was the athlete that paid the price.

Brian Bowen Jr. was suspended from the Louisville basketball team, transferred to University of South Carolina and then forced by the NCAA to sit out for two seasons.

While he tried to enter the draft in 2018 and 2019, the case followed him and, instead, he opted to leave the United States and play in Australia, his dream to play in the NBA all but shattered.

But the investigation also revealed how even the FBI agents were seduced into the seedier side of collegiate sport, compromising their inquiries.

During one sting in July 2017, the FBI took over the Chelsea Suite penthouse at the Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas and filled the safe with $135,000 of federal cash intended to bribe visiting coaches and capture the deals on hidden cameras.

Instead, the lead case agent, Scott Carpenter, took full advantage of the state-funded hospitality, drank a six-pack of beer and nearly a whole bottle of vodka before taking $13,500 from the safe and losing it all in $700-a-hand games of Blackjack at the Bellagio.

“Later that year, Scott Carpenter rose in court in Las Vegas to plead guilty to a misdemeanor count of embezzlement of $13,500 in federal funds, the crime ironically — or perhaps, predictably — captured on the casino’s security camera,” writes Lawson.

The FBI investigation into the Marty Blazer scandal saw Iowa Wolves-player Brian Bowen come under scrutiny. NBAE via Getty Images
The FBI investigation into the Marty Blazer scandal saw Iowa Wolves-player Brian Bowen come under scrutiny. NBAE via Getty Images

Marty Blazer wasn’t surprised.

“I saw the trouble coming as I watched Scott get caught up in the money and glamor,” he told Lawson.

“It is intoxicating — in Scott’s case, literally.”

While Scott Carpenter was sentenced to 90 days in jail, Marty Blazer avoided a custodial sentence and, in 2020, was given just one year of probation and ordered to repay $1.56 million in restitution to those he defrauded.

With the investigation over, Blazer slipped out of the limelight, taking a job in the tech industry and, alongside wife Trish, trying to help their three kids through college.

He was a changed man. “After all that I put my family through, I crave a quiet life,” he told Lawson.

But Marty Blazer never got his wish.

After everything he had been through, Marty Blazer sadly died this past January. Herrick Compassionate Funeral Service
After everything he had been through, Marty Blazer sadly died this past January. Herrick Compassionate Funeral Service

This past Jan. 8, soon after Lawson had finished “Hot Dog Money,” Blazer died suddenly of natural causes at his home near Pittsburgh, Pa.

He was just 53 (although his story will live on far beyond Lawson’s book; George Clooney has bought the rights to turn it into a movie).

“It seemed to me that Marty Blazer personified the age-old contradiction at the heart of so many stories about crime and punishment,” writes Lawson.

Yes, I lied then, but now I’m telling the truth.”