Why law enforcement was able to achieve what NCAA investigators could not

Jeff Eisenberg

Halfway through his news conference announcing the discovery of widespread fraud and corruption in college basketball, acting U.S. attorney Joon Kim was asked if law enforcement had worked in conjunction with the NCAA at all.

His answer was telling.

“Until today, I don’t believe they were aware of this investigation,” Kim said.

How apropos that the NCAA had nothing to do with the probe that finally blew open the doors to the nefarious, shadowy world of college basketball recruiting. The NCAA’s enforcement division has long been sincere in its efforts to crack down on cheating in college athletics, but it has lacked sufficient manpower or investigative clout to come close to achieving that mission.

For decades, the unseemly way that elite players are procured has been college basketball’s worst-kept secret. College coaches, agents and shoe-apparel companies funnel money to the families and AAU coaches of top prospects in exchange for their influence on what school the player chooses. Many of those same college coaches later accept under-the-table bribes in return for persuading elite players to hire certain agents or financial advisers when they’re ready to turn pro.

The level of sophistication of the covert schemes has increased over the years, as has the price of getting involved with McDonald’s All-American-level prospects. The one thing that hasn’t changed is that the cheaters have more often than not managed to stay one step ahead of overmatched NCAA investigators responsible for policing the sport.

Whereas law enforcement agencies can tap phones, subpoena uncooperative witnesses, request search warrants or penalize false testimony with perjury charges, NCAA investigators must attempt to ensnare rule breakers without any of those powers. Student-athletes, coaches and university administrators risk sanctions if they don’t provide enforcement staffers with truthful answers or pertinent documents, but investigators have no means of compelling family, friends, high school coaches and others outside of NCAA jurisdiction to cooperate.

There’s also a perception that the NCAA committee on infractions isn’t sufficiently motivated to severely punish the few instances of blatant cheating that the enforcement division uncovers. The NCAA, after all, is being paid by the schools it’s investigating. It’s not good business to obliterate college sports’ most prominent coaches or biggest brands.

The result is a system that rewards programs that cheat and punishes those who don’t.

Eighty-six percent of college basketball coaches polled by CBSSports.com last year said that college basketball recruiting was either as corrupt as it was five years earlier or even dirtier. Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby was even more blunt, telling reporters at Big 12 media day three years ago that “enforcement is broken” and that the perception right now is “cheating pays.”

“The most frustrating part of the job was not being able to get people to talk to you or not being able to get the documents or records you need to get to the truth,” Julie Roe Lach, the NCAA’s former vice president of enforcement, told Yahoo Sports in 2014. “That’s far and away the No. 1 frustration people on the enforcement staff encounter, and usually it happens many times in your career. Sometimes you even know what’s out there based on media reports, but you can’t prove it.”

Enter the Department of Justice, which has the investigative clout the NCAA lacks and no reason to minimize the damage.

A two-year sting operation resulted in the indictment of 10 men on Tuesday including prominent assistant coaches from Arizona, USC, Oklahoma State and Auburn. Also caught in the crossfire are several other prominent programs including Louisville, which allegedly paid $100,000 to land an All-American recruit. Connect the dots, and that’s almost certainly Brian Bowen, who committed to the Cardinals in early June despite expressing virtually no interest in them until mid-May.

The investigation began last year when a prominent financial planner was charged with fraud for misusing an athlete’s money. He agreed to become a cooperating witness and to bring undercover FBI agents to meetings, where they posed as corrupt financial advisers and got a firsthand glimpse of college basketball’s dark underbelly.

“We obtained numerous court-authorized wiretaps and made hundreds of consensual recordings,” Kim said. “Through these recordings, we were able to hear in the defendants’ own words, their audacious, allegedly criminal schemes.”

The Department of Justice’s interest in cleaning up college basketball is a game changer for the sport. Agents, coaches and shoe-apparel executives can’t feel safe concealing bribes as long as an investigative body with more authority than the NCAA is looking over their shoulders.

The scariest part for college basketball programs is that Tuesday’s affidavit promises to be only the tip of the iceberg. More names will inevitably surface as the FBI continues its hunt and the accused start pointing fingers to avoid jail time.

“We have your playbook,” FBI assistant director Bill Sweeney warned. “Our investigation is ongoing, and we are conducting additional interviews as we speak.”

For decades, college basketball coaches have operated under the premise that cheaters prosper more than they’re punished. Now the FBI is involved and everything is different. Only the untainted are safe.

The FBI’s crackdown on corruption in college basketball could be a game changer for the sport. (Getty)
The FBI’s crackdown on corruption in college basketball could be a game changer for the sport. (Getty)

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Jeff Eisenberg is the editor of The Dagger on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at daggerblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!