Judge mulling whether to allow Louisville escort scandal in college hoops corruption trial

NEW YORK – You know a college basketball fraud trial is going well when, in trying to hash out what is and isn’t going to be admissible evidence, a federal judge states the following sentence in open court.

“So the rent-a-cops were in the dorm when the hookers were brought in …”

That was United States District Judge Lewis A. Kaplan, 73 years young, and that was part of a debate about just how much of what he described as “Louisville’s last problems” is relevant to Louisville’s current troubles, which are at the center of the trial of Adidas executive James Gatto, Adidas consultant Merl Code and budding basketball middleman Christian Dawkins here in Lower Manhattan.

The past includes the sordid scandal involving strippers and prostitutes performing for players and recruits inside Louisville basketball dorms. It led the NCAA to hit the school with major violations in 2017, but not any firings of coaches or personnel.

The current problems start right about the same time, with the recruitment of top recruit Brian Bowen, which came about because Adidas allegedly agreed to pay his family $100,000 to become a Cardinal. That finally was enough for the school to dump coach Rick Pitino and athletic director Tom Jurich.

What makes it all relevant here is a simple question: How can anyone believe, as the government wants jurors to do, that a school such as Louisville really cares about complying with NCAA statutes when not even hooker parties in the dorm can cause someone to get fired?

“Louisville was on probation at the time they solicited my client to break NCAA rules,” attorney Steve Haney, who represents Dawkins, argued to Judge Kaplan. Haney said it was a critical piece of evidence because there was no reason for Dawkins to think he was hurting a school whose only concern about cheating was getting caught.

Why is Louisville’s past being considered in this fraud trial? The defense is arguing that all you need to know about Louisville, or all of college basketball, is the stripper scandal. (AP)
Why is Louisville’s past being considered in this fraud trial? The defense is arguing that all you need to know about Louisville, or all of college basketball, is the stripper scandal. (AP)

That recruiting battles and grassroots basketball “sneaker wars” have reached federal court is absurd enough. Terms such as “bag man,” “decommit” and “five-star recruit” were all used on Tuesday. College basketball’s excess was detailed not just in the millions made by coaches and billions made by the NCAA, but in things like the time N.C. State rented coach Mark Gottfried a helicopter and a pilot so he could land on the grounds of recruit Dennis Smith Jr.’s high school.

Is there any reason why Gatto, Code and others would think a school that invested in getting a commitment would frown upon them dishing the Smith family $40,000, as they admitted doing?

It’s up to Judge Kaplan to decipher just how much scandal is too much scandal and adds to the lunacy. Tuesday was a day full of broad accusations and uncontested admissions, of huge payouts for players involving schools such as Arizona, Kansas, Oregon, N.C. State, Miami and, of course, Louisville.

As was repeatedly explained by defense attorneys to the jury, this case is not about who or what. The three defendants all concede they were involved in violating NCAA rules by paying the families of top recruits so they would sign with schools sponsored by Adidas. They just don’t believe that rises to a federal offense.

“NCAA rules are not the laws of the country,” said Casey Donnelly, the attorney for Gatto.

Each man is charged with one count of wire fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud. Gatto is facing an additional charge of wire fraud as well.

With the facts established, and sure to be proven in extensive wiretap and secret video recordings, the case is about the why – or the intent.

Can the government prove the three men were trying to harm and defraud the schools they shipped recruits too? The prosecution’s position is that by paying recruits or their families, the men made the players ineligible and thus set the schools up for costly NCAA violations.

The defendants counter they were trying to help the schools get better players and thus better teams and did so at the request, either direct or implied, of basketball coaches.

“If a basketball coach went to Jim [Gatto] and said he wanted a particular player on that team and asked to make that happen, Jim would understand … I’ll help the family out financially,” Donnelly said.

Which brings the case to the question of how much, if anything, the jury should hear about Louisville’s stripper scandal when hearing about its recruiting scandal.

The government doesn’t want it mentioned. They are holding the line that schools do not want to commit NCAA violations and take this entire concept of compliance very seriously.

The defense points to the real world and just laughs. The entire sport is a hustle, the NCAA is just a bunch of mall cops.

“The NCAA is like a kid’s after-school soccer league,” Donnelly told jurors. “Only if the soccer league brought in a billion dollars in revenue.”

Her point? If you play a kid who is somehow ineligible, say by age, you might get in trouble. You don’t get indicted and hauled into federal court for defrauding the league.

The feds see it differently. They acknowledge basketball coaches either imply or directly ask for help, but say they don’t represent the school, even if they are the highest paid and most famous employees. They even have Louisville’s senior associate athletic director for compliance, John Carns, on the witness list to testify about how hard the school works to avoid cheating.

The defense is countering that all you need to know about Louisville, or all of college basketball, is the stripper scandal. It was a huge story and brought about major sanctions, including the vacating of the team’s 2013 NCAA title. However, no coach or staff member, including Rick Pitino or even Carns himself, was fired because of it.

Instead, it was business as usual. On secret video that is expected to be played at the trial, a Louisville assistant is heard discussing the plan to land Bowen and even notes, “We’re on probation so we have to be careful.”

If you’re Christian Dawkins, 22 years old and new to the business at the time, how could you believe Louisville ever did or ever will care about NCAA rules? If it’s allowed to be brought in front of a jury that might be shocked by the depravity, it would be a huge boon to the defense.

That’s up to Judge Kaplan, though, who hasn’t yet made a ruling. Late Tuesday he seemed miffed he was even being asked to sort it out and would like the two sides to work it out themselves. He doesn’t seem inclined to allow too much.

“Do we want to get into a trial about the last Louisville problem?” Kaplan asked.

If the problems never end – and they never do in college sports – then why not?

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