The emailed statement arrived Tuesday night at 7:01 p.m. ET. It said, in part, that “the University of Kansas is named as a victim in a federal indictment.”
The v-word was a trigger for some in college basketball circles.
“Claiming to be the victim?” said a former longtime coach. “That is just total bull
Kansas is claiming victimhood after the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York alleged in an indictment Tuesday that the mother of one prized recruit and guardian of another received tens of thousands of dollars from the shoe company Adidas via an AAU intermediary to secure their commitments to play for the Jayhawks — a flagship Adidas school. The federal indictment does not allege any knowledge of the schemes or participation in them by Kansas — hence the school’s stance that it has been harmed by alleged illegal deals behind its back.
The feds provided support for Kansas’ claim within their indictment, which reads in part: “The alleged objects of the conspiracy remain the same, namely, to defraud the victim-universities by (1) causing them to issue athletic scholarships under the false pretense that the student-athletes receiving this athletic based financial aid were eligible to compete in NCAA athletics, and (2) depriving those universities of their right to control their assets while further exposing them to the risk of tangible economic harm in the form of NCAA fines and penalties, among other things.”
But that stance becomes more debatable within the context of other recent events involving Kansas basketball players. The larger issue for the school and its highly successful head coach, Bill Self, is that this is merely the latest potential “victimization” of a program that has had major potential NCAA compliance problems arise with four different players in the past 38 months.
* Late in the 2014-15 season, highly touted freshman forward Cliff Alexander was sidelined by an NCAA impermissible benefits issue. As Yahoo Sports reported in March 2015, a public filing tied Alexander’s mother, Latilla, to a finance company that specializes in loans to professional athletes and agents. Alexander missed the final eight games of the season and subsequently turned professional. He said that spring that he doubted he would have been eligible to continue playing collegiately. Kansas said it had no knowledge of any benefits the family may have received.
* In February, Yahoo Sports viewed ASM Sports agency documents that show ASM associate Christian Dawkins claimed $2,700 in cash payments to Apples Jones, the mother of five-star recruit Josh Jackson, while the player was a senior in high school. Dawkins’ January 2016 expense report lists a $1,000 advance to Jones, and his February ’16 expense report lists a $1,700 advance. Jackson committed to Kansas on April 12, 2016, and played the 2016-17 season for the Jayhawks before turning pro.
In August 2016, Dawkins wrote an email to his supervisors at ASM summarizing a meeting with Jones, who was a self-styled AAU entrepreneur during Jackson’s high school years: “UA is giving her 10k a month and she’s also getting paid by adidas now — so she’s plenty taken care of.” Jones started her own AAU program, funded by Under Armour. It’s unclear why she also allegedly was being paid by Adidas. Jones told the Lawrence Journal-World in February that any implication that she received money from Dawkins is “not true at all.”
* On Tuesday, the feds alleged that Adidas executive James Gatto and a coach of an Adidas-sponsored AAU team gave “approximately at least $90,000 to the mother of a top high school basketball player. The payments were made in connection with a commitment by the student athlete to attend the University of Kansas.” That player, according to Yahoo sources, was 2017-18 five-star recruit Billy Preston, who never played an official game at the school after his use of a car triggered an eligibility investigation last November. Preston turned pro during the season.
* In the same federal complaint released Tuesday, it was alleged that Gatto & Co. conspired to pay the guardian of a five-star player to pull the recruit away from another school and attend Kansas. The deal included at least $20,000 to get the player “out from under” an agreement to attend the other school, which was backed by a rival shoe company. That player, according to Yahoo sources, was Silvio De Sousa, who reclassified from the Class of 2018 to 2017 during last season and was cleared by the NCAA to play for the Jayhawks in January.
In a response to an inquiry about the succession of eligibility issues, chancellor Douglas A. Girod issued the following statement to Yahoo Sports: “The university constantly evaluates its processes to ensure we are in compliance and using best practices. Last fall, when news of the FBI probe first broke, the NCAA directed all Division I programs to examine their men’s basketball programs. We did that, with third-party assistance, and at the conclusion of that process, we expressed our complete confidence that our staff understand and follow the rules – and that hasn’t changed. The recent indictment names KU as a victim and asserts that unlawful activities were deliberately concealed from KU officials. The indictment does not suggest any wrongdoing by the university, its coaches or its staff.”
Still, the university’s stance was not greeted with great sympathy around a sport where questions have long simmered about the Jayhawks’ recruiting methods.
“Look,” said one prominent veteran head coach, “everyone’s been talking about Kansas for years.”
It’s more than just talk now. When you put the four above player issues together, many people in and around college basketball are questioning the integrity of the Kansas program.
“It should raise concern — it has to raise concern,” said ESPN analyst and Indianapolis radio host Dan Dakich, a former college head coach. “Bill has to ask some tough questions of whoever is below him, and the bosses have to have real sit-down conversations with Bill Self and his staff. You have to ask, ‘What do you know? And you better tell me the truth.’ You can’t just say you’re the victim.
“Four players in a short period of time? Lucy, you’ve got some ‘splainin’ to do.”
Tom Yeager, retired commissioner of the Colonial Athletic Association, has chaired the NCAA Committee on Infractions. He said that if a case came before the committee with multiple potential infractions of a similar nature, it would raise doubt about the school’s compliance efforts.
“When you have multiple players over a couple years, isn’t that a coincidence,” Yeager said. “If I’m sitting on the Committee on Infractions, I’m saying, ‘Isn’t that interesting?’ I think that just raises the credible explanation level. You’re looking to see if there is a pattern. You have a lot of defenses that say, ‘This is a one-off kid.’ It would be a lot harder to make that argument.”
In recruiting circles, the commitments that raise eyebrows tend to be the ones nobody saw coming. Speaking in generalities, Rivals.com recruiting analyst Corey Evans described it thusly: “Oddly timed commitments that pop out of practically thin air, when most attempt to play things out, is definitely one that catches your eye. Another, and maybe the most pressing, is whenever a program jumps into the mix very late into the process and gains major traction.”
Which brings us to Silvio De Sousa.
Kansas was not a late player in the recruitment of the 6-foot-9 forward from IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida — Self and assistant coaches Norm Roberts and Kurtis Townsend all visited IMG to see De Sousa. But the idea of a Kansas campus visit, commitment, signing and reclassification to play this past season was largely unforeseen until it suddenly happened.
Last summer, five Rivals.com recruiting analysts unanimously predicted that De Sousa, a top-30 prospect in the graduating class of 2018, would commit to Maryland. The Terrapins shared the same athletic outfitter as IMG, Under Armour, an affiliation IMG proudly displays on its website. And the Terps already had secured a commitment for the 2017-18 season from De Sousa’s childhood friend in Angola, Bruno Fernando — in fact, the two have the same guardian in America, Fenny Falmagne.
Under Armour would fit the description of the “rival athletic apparel company” alleged to have made “illicit payments” in August 2017 to Falmagne to secure a commitment from De Sousa, according to the federal complaint. That’s when, at the alleged invitation of Falmagne, Adidas entered the fray to pay the guardian and steer De Sousa to Kansas.
Late in August, De Sousa made a surprise visit to Lawrence. On Aug. 30, after his one and only official recruiting visit, De Sousa informed the Lawrence Journal-World of his commitment to play for the Jayhawks. The paper’s story on the commitment began with this sentence: “His visit came out of nowhere and the whole process of recruiting him was shorter than most.”
That fits neatly within Evans’ description of an unusual recruitment. Some 7½ months after De Sousa committed and five months after he signed a letter of intent, the feds made the recruitment part of their superseded indictment. (Falmagne has denied receiving any money in exchange for De Sousa’s commitment, or that of any player for whom he has served as guardian.)
Along the way, De Sousa reclassified from the graduating class of 2018 to 2017 and was hustled into school at Kansas for the second semester. After being cleared by the NCAA eligibility center, he played his first game for the Jayhawks on Jan. 13 — just 16 days after graduating and withdrawing from IMG. The NCAA did not formally respond to a request for comment on the process of clearing De Sousa to play.
Five administrators, coaches and analysts familiar with NCAA bylaws, processes and the general recruiting landscape told Yahoo Sports that an unusual recruitment of a high-profile prospect merits heightened scrutiny from the school accepting him. Especially, many pointed out, when the player enrolls in the immediate aftermath of a federal indictment that rocked the sport.
“I think the FBI investigation definitely means that going forward all schools need to apply heightened scrutiny to high-profile recruits even if the schools are not named or implicated in the current situation,” said Nebraska law professor Josephine Potuto, a longtime member of the NCAA Committee on Infractions, speaking about men’s basketball in general. “The bigger question is whether a school with high-profile recruits should have been applying heightened scrutiny even before the FBI story broke. I think the answer has to be yes.
“First, because there was a lot of noise about what was happening in men’s basketball recruiting and the influence of the shoe/apparel companies and runners/agents. That should have meant that a school would take a very close look at high-profile prospective student-athletes. Second, because in general institutional control means having systems in place to avoid violations, not simply acting appropriately when violations are uncovered. The more risk involved with particular situations, the more vetting that should be done. A school that competed with ineligible players has committed a violation, no matter how thorough its vetting and how well-conceived its control processes. Its system of vetting recruits puts institutional control on the table, and here the adequacy of the vetting is relevant.”
Potuto added that “it is very difficult for a school to decline to offer someone where it has tried, and can nail nothing down.” That may be the case with Kansas’ vetting of De Sousa’s eligibility. Regardless of the process that was undertaken, De Sousa’s accelerated matriculation to Kansas was brought about for one primary reason: The Jayhawks were in acute need of another big man for the 2017-18 season.
Why the acute need? Because 6-10 Billy Preston never gained his eligibility, leaving a glaring hole in the lineup. De Sousa filled it and played an increased role in March, helping Kansas win the Big 12 tournament and advance to the NCAA tournament Final Four.
Now Preston and De Sousa are linked in a different way.
Everyone likes Bill.
When it comes to sheer affability, Bill Self ranks among the most popular coaches in college basketball — among peers and media alike. In a profession where making enemies is an inevitability, Self has precious few. He’s won a national title, been to three Final Fours, won 14 straight Big 12 titles and been inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame, all without fostering much in the way of resentment or ill will.
Some in the industry wonder if those endearing personal traits have enabled Self to avoid serious criticism for off-court issues. “Teflon” was the word used to describe him by one head coach — who considers himself, like so many others, a friend of Self’s.
But at the same time, there was a widespread expectation within the college basketball community that Kansas would be an inevitable part of the FBI investigation of the sport. If Adidas schools were being busted, and if high-profile recruits were the primary focus of college basketball’s underground economy, the Jayhawks checked both boxes.
“Everyone was shocked when Kansas wasn’t in the initial [indictment],” said one college hoops insider. “And everyone isn’t shocked now.”
The only shock seems to come from the administration in Lawrence. What the outside world saw coming, the university apparently did not.
And when the indictment did drop with Kansas’ name in it, the “victim” response quickly followed. Yet despite being allegedly victimized by Adidas, the school remains in negotiations to complete a 12-year, $191 million contract extension with the apparel company. Girod gave Kansas an out, however, in a statement to Yahoo Sports: “We constantly evaluate our arrangements with partners and sponsors. Like universities across the country, we will continue to monitor the situation, evaluate new information, and make decisions that are in the best interest of our university and our students.”
It would be an awkward business relationship with a company that just victimized a university — if, that is, you buy the victim response that touched a nerve nationwide.
“Bottom line,” said Potuto, “I have trouble with a school’s argument that it is a victim when there are two, or four, known instances of recruits taking money.”
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