'Nike schools pay too': Federal court docs allude to corruption involving flagship Nike basketball programs

Sentencing for the feds’ first trial against college hoops corruption continues on Monday. (Yahoo Sports illustration)
Sentencing for the feds’ first trial against college hoops corruption continues on Monday. (Yahoo Sports illustration)

A trove of documents were submitted by defense lawyers this week to Judge Lewis Kaplan ahead of the sentencing of three men found guilty of conspiracy in the federal trial of corruption in college basketball. The filings include sheafs of letters vouching for the character of former Adidas executive James Gatto, Adidas consultant Merl Code Jr. and aspiring agent Christian Dawkins – standard fare in an attempt to gain sentencing leniency from the court. But the filings also include snippets of evidence entered at trial, some of which revive an old, dormant question in the 16-month-old case.

Did other shoe companies beyond Adidas also buy players for their flagship schools?

Code, who worked for 14 years at industry leader Nike before moving to Adidas, said his former employer was in the business of brokering deals between basketball programs and recruits. “Nike schools pay too,” Code said in a conversation recorded by federal investigators on June 20, 2017. In the same conversation, Code names several of the most prominent programs in the country that are outfitted by Nike.

“It’s a corrupt space as it is and cheating is cheating,” Code is quoted as saying in the transcript. “Whether I give you a dollar, 100,000, or I get your mom and dad jobs, it’s cheating. … So in some form or fashion, Duke, North Carolina, Syracuse, Kentucky and all of the schools are doing something to help get kids. That’s just a part of the space.”

South Carolina-based attorney Andrew Mathias, part of Code’s defense team, declined comment on behalf of his client Friday.

The defense team also submitted an August 2017 text conversation between Kansas coach Bill Self and former Adidas consultant T.J. Gassnola, a cooperating witness for the government who was described in court as an Adidas “bag man” and admitted to making multiple payments to help secure players for schools outfitted by the company. In that text exchange, the two discussed making Kansas the top recruiting priority at Adidas.

“In my mind it’s KU Bill Self,” Gassnola texted. “Everyone else falls into line, to [expletive] bad, that’s what’s right for adidas Basketball. And I know Iam RIGHT. The more you win, have lottery picks. And you happy. That’s how it should work in my mind.”

Self responded: “That’s how ur works. At unc and Duke.”

“Kentucky as well,” Gassnola replied.

An August 2017 text conversation between Kansas coach Bill Self and former Adidas consultant T.J. Gassnola.
An August 2017 text conversation between Kansas coach Bill Self and former Adidas consultant T.J. Gassnola.

Yet the Nike – and Under Armour – part of the space has been relatively undisturbed since the federal investigation was first made public in September 2017. Former assistant coaches at Nike schools Arizona, USC and Oklahoma State have been charged with bribery and accepted plea deals, and a few other Nike-outfitted programs were implicated via testimony, evidence and other court submissions. But aside from Arizona, where an NCAA investigation into the basketball program has begun according to multiple sources, Nike’s most established programs appear to have gone unscathed.

It is unclear whether federal investigators have any inclination to continue probing the extent of college basketball corruption beyond the 2018 trial of Gatto, Code and Dawkins, and the two trials scheduled for this year. Yet to underscore the point Code made in the transcripts, it seems unlikely that Adidas would have been bidding against itself for the services of top players — this was a market driven by competition. Ultimately, much of this may be a job left to the NCAA instead of the feds, and it’s also unclear whether the governing body of college sports has the wherewithal to investigate what could be dozens of programs in a timely fashion.

“We certainly have the manpower and the willpower,” NCAA president Mark Emmert said in December. But the association remains largely locked into a waiting game as the legal cases wind their way through the judicial system.

In the June 20, 2017, transcript, Code also alluded to on-campus attempts to keep players aligned to Adidas even if they attend a school outfitted by a rival apparel company — to the point of having operatives on campus following players to class.

“Now, if I have an Adidas kid who is high on my radar and he goes to Kentucky or Duke, I just, to just make sure that we have managed the relationship enough that we maintained, because again I told you, those factors at Kentucky,” Code is quoted as saying, before an unintelligible part of the recording. “So you continue to stay in contact. … I’m trying to go to the games. I’m trying to meet them on the road. … I need to be visible and present.

“And if the kid is that important, I need to be there. Right. Because I need to fight off somebody because the out of sight, out of mind is really in play here. Because you have guys who are going to camp, send people to move into their city … they’re going to walk around with book bags like they’re going to class. They’re going to walk to class with the kid every day. It is a mess because there’s so much money involved.”

Whether all the letters and evidence and sentencing arguments submitted by the defense lawyers will have any sway over Kaplan remains to be seen. It seems like a long shot, since much of it appears to be an attempt to relitigate a trial the defense already lost, and Kaplan took a hard line throughout the proceedings.

But beyond legal value, the submitted material serves two purposes: as a reminder of how wide this scandal really might be; and a reinforcement of how time consuming it would be for either the feds or the NCAA to expand their inquiries beyond Adidas.

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