Should Louisville get death penalty after latest revelations in college hoops trial?

Columnist
Yahoo Sports
Rick Pitino’s time at Louisville is done, but the school may still suffer from the myriad alleged actions by his staff. (AP)
Rick Pitino’s time at Louisville is done, but the school may still suffer from the myriad alleged actions by his staff. (AP)

NEW YORK – On June 15, 2017, the NCAA hammered the University of Louisville with major rules violations after players and recruits were found to have received sexual favors in the team dorm from prostitutes hired by a men’s basketball staff member.

Penalties included the vacating of 123 victories, including the 2013 national title, a five-game suspension for head coach Rick Pitino and four years of probation.

On Aug. 23, 2017, just nine weeks later, Louisville associate head coach Kenny Johnson parked his car in front of the Galt House, the famed downtown hotel. That’s where Brian Bowen Sr., the father of incoming Cardinal five-star freshman Brian “Tugs” Bowen, was staying in a $2,300-a-month apartment.

Tuesday, during a federal fraud trial here in Manhattan, Bowen Sr. testified he climbed into Johnson’s car and the assistant coach handed over $1,300 in cash.

With that alleged clandestine transaction comes the obvious question: Will the NCAA investigate Bowen’s claim and if proven as true as his being under oath implies, label Louisville men’s basketball as a repeat violator of major rules and hit it with the death penalty?

The testimony that has emerged from the trial of Adidas executives Jim Gatto and Merl Code, and runner and would-be agent Christian Dawkins this week has not be kind to Louisville. When 10 men were originally arrested a little over a year ago following a lengthy FBI investigation into the sport, one of the casualties was Pitino, who was fired by the Cardinals.

At the time, however, the allegations were that Gatto, Code and Dawkins arranged for Adidas to funnel $100,000 to Bowen Sr. in exchange for his son playing for Louisville, an Adidas-sponsored school. Pitino and others noted they had no knowledge of the deal and thus far nothing has emerged at trial to suggest they did – at least not directly.

“He does know something,” Code is heard saying on wiretap when discussing Pitino with Dawkins. “He doesn’t know everything … plausible deniability.”

With that kind of separation from the payment, Louisville and Pitino, one could argue that they were even a victim of Gatto, et al, and they would have never approved any such rule breaking, especially while on probation.

Now, though?

What happens if the second in command of the basketball team personally handed over cash to the father of an incoming freshman, all while he is staying at a hotel/apartment complex that would raise red flags as the housing choice for nearly anyone, let alone a former police officer living off disability.

This also seems to further decimate the government’s theory in why it brought this case to trial – that Louisville is a victim here, just a cute and cuddly basketball team trying to strictly follow NCAA amateurism guidelines and thus disgusted that anyone would pay money to a recruit or player.

“Would you agree this act by the head associate coach at the University of Louisville, Kenny Johnson, paying you cash [would have] affected Tugs’ eligibility the exact same way [as] what Christian Dawkins did?” Dawkins attorney, Steve Haney, asked Bowen Sr. during cross examination.

“Yes,” Bowen Sr. answered. “Both violations.”

Johnson and the school have the right to refute Bowen’s allegations, and it will be interesting to see if they do and how they attempt to accomplish it. However, Bowen’s full story sounds convincing.

Brian Bowen Sr. took the stand in federal court on Tuesday in the first of three college basketball corruption cases. Federal prosecutors argued that the signing of his son was the result of a payoff to Bowen Sr. (AP)
Brian Bowen Sr. took the stand in federal court on Tuesday in the first of three college basketball corruption cases. Federal prosecutors argued that the signing of his son was the result of a payoff to Bowen Sr. (AP)

Text messages and FBI-intercepted phone calls between Bowen and Dawkins reveal that Dawkins told, and Bowen believed, that Johnson would provide $2,000 a month in cash to help pay for Bowen Sr.’s apartment in Louisville.

Christian basically told me Kenny was supposed to be getting me some money,” Bowen Sr. testified.

On June 26, Bowen and Johnson connected via text message and set up a meeting at a Shell gas station in downtown Louisville.

Let’s start there. Why would an associate head coach agree to such a meeting place if the intent was innocent? Johnson had a plush office inside the Louisville basketball complex and visiting with the parent of a player would be considered routine. Instead each man arrived at the parking lot of the Bader’s Food Mart attached to the gas station.

Bowen Sr. climbed into Johnson’s car.

“I kind of eased into it,” Bowen testified about bringing up the money. “[I said] ‘I was told by Christian you were supposed to give me $2,000 for rent.'”

Johnson expressed shock at the request, according to Bowen Sr.

“He was flabbergasted,” Bowen Sr. said. “He said he didn’t know anything about it. He couldn’t do that [because] his wife would kill him.”

Bowen said he left empty-handed and called Dawkins, who told Bowen Sr., “[Johnson] should know about it” and “he will take care of it.”

Two months later, Bowen and Johnson texted again, this time with Bowen writing, “Hey Kenny, how’s it going? Wanna get together to square up?”

Johnson wrote back: “OK, will call you later on.”

Bowen owned a self-described “bat phone” that was not in his name but was used when discussing what he called “cash schemes.” He later that day met Johnson in front of the Galt House, where the money was handed over but not before Johnson told Bowen that this wouldn’t be a monthly thing.

“He made it pretty clear this is a one-time deal for him,” Bowen Sr. said. “[He said] Louisville didn’t need to pay players, they’ve got plenty of players.”

Perhaps, but if Bowen’s account was true, they most certainly were paying players, or at least the parents of players. That is a clear major violation. This isn’t in the gray area. And it occurred a little over two months after getting drilled in a separate major violation case. Plus, just two months prior Johnson claimed there would never be a payment and now he was making a payment, so whether this would really be a one-time thing is questionable.

We never got to find out, of course. By late September, when the scandal broke, Johnson was placed on administrative leave. He was fired in November and now works as an assistant at LaSalle. That school has offered no comment yet on the allegations Tuesday.

The NCAA’s stated criteria for implementing the “repeat violator” legislation and enacting the so-called death penalty is straightforward.

“Following the announcement of a major case, a major violation occurs … within five years of the starting date of the penalty assessed in the first case,” NCAA documents read. “The second major case does not have to be in the same sport as the previous case to affect the second sport.”

In this case it isn’t just the same sport, men’s basketball, it’s the same coaching staff, Rick Pitino’s. And forget five years, Louisville didn’t make it five months.

The first, with the strippers and the prostitutes, occurred because of the direct actions of director of basketball operations Andre McGee, who was gone by the time the sanctions hit. This one, if true, would be the associate head coach.

Perhaps even worse for Louisville, this trial isn’t even half over. The prosecution has already stated, without details, that another assistant coach, Jordan Fair, paid $900 to a separate student athlete at an undisclosed time. It is also possible that a secret recording of a meeting in Las Vegas may be introduced featuring Fair. That’s three separate members of Pitino’s staff that would be implicated.

The NCAA has brought out the death penalty only once, barring the SMU football team from playing the 1987 season and limiting the 1988 season to only home games for violating NCAA rules while on probation. The school decided to sit out 1988 also.

This is similar, sort of. Prostitutes, strippers and then alleged direct cash payments, only not from rogue boosters or in the shadows via agents, but Pitino’s own hand-picked staff members.

If the committee on infractions doesn’t have the courage to implement the death penalty on that, then the NCAA should just give up and take it off the books.

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