NEW YORK – It didn’t take long for college basketball’s dirty laundry – or at least accusations of it – to begin getting aired out at the sport’s federal corruption trial here in Lower Manhattan.
During opening statements Tuesday morning, a defense attorney for Adidas executive Jim Gatto acknowledged that her client had committed numerous NCAA violations, specifically in agreeing to send $100,000 to the family of top recruit Brian Bowen in exchange for him attending the University of Louisville.
However, Gatto only did it, she argued, because he was asked by Louisville assistant coaches to “level the playing field” in a recruiting battle for the Saginaw, Michigan forward with the Nike-supported University of Oregon.
“Oregon, a Nike school, offered [Bowen] an astronomical amount of money if he’d go to Oregon,” attorney Casey Donnelly said.
That allegation was backed up by the attorney for Adidas consultant Merl Code.
“Oregon was going to pay Mr. Bowen money to go to Oregon,” Code’s attorney Mark Moore acknowledged.
This was the first direct implication against the Oregon program since the FBI-led scandal broke just over one year ago.
“The university is aware of the claim made by a defense attorney in New York’s U.S. District Court as part of opening statements in a criminal trial related to college basketball recruiting,” the school said in a statement. “To date, the University of Oregon has not been contacted by the federal government or any other party involved in these proceedings. We take the claim seriously and will monitor the court proceedings closely for any further details.”
It is unlikely to be the last bombshell to emerge from the closely watched wire fraud trial of Gatto, fellow Adidas employee Merl Code, and budding business manager Christian Dawkins.
All three men are charged with one count of wire fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud involving the recruitment of Bowen, who was ruled ineligible by the NCAA and never played at Louisville before turning pro. Gatto also faces a second wire-fraud count involving players at the University of Kansas.
Here at the Daniel Patrick Moynihan federal courthouse in Lower Manhattan, the government is trying to paint a picture of the three men conspiring to defraud Louisville, Kansas, North Carolina State and Miami by doling out payments to recruits and their families that violate NCAA statutes. As such, any school playing such a player is now at risk of NCAA sanctions.
“When you lie, cheat and deceive, that is a crime,” assistant U.S. attorney Edward Diskant said.
Donnelly, however, countered by arguing that Gatto was helping the schools by delivering top talent that made the institutions millions and the NCAA billions. She also promised evidence that would show Gatto was doing so with the knowledge and even at the request of highly paid basketball coaches.
“Jim Gatto broke NCAA rules,” Donnelly said. “NCAA rules are not laws.”
Attorneys for both Code and Dawkins also conceded their clients were involved in NCAA violations but echoed the idea that it was in an effort to bolster the fortune of the schools, not to harm, cheat or defraud them.
“We agree Merl Code helped facilitate payment to the family of [Brian] Bowen in order for him to go to the University of Louisville,” Code’s attorney Mark Moore said. “Breaking NCAA rules to help [an Adidas] flagship school is a far cry from conspiracy.”
“Rule breaking does not constitute law breaking,” Dawkins’ attorney Steve Haney said.
Donnelly did not specifically say that Gatto was working at the behest of Rick Pitino, the then-Louisville coach. She repeatedly stated that Gatto acted at the wishes of coaches, in general.
Donnelly also acknowledged that Gatto provided a $20,000 payment to recruit Silvio De Sousa, who attends Kansas, which is sponsored by Adidas. He did so, however, only after “Under Armour had paid for De Sousa to [commit] to the University of Maryland.”
“Jim was asked if Jim could match the offer so [De Sousa] could go to Kansas,” Donnelly said, not specifically naming who asked for the offer to be matched.
De Sousa played last year on the Jayhawks’ Final Four team and is returning for his sophomore season. Meanwhile, prosecutors said evidence would show an agreement to pay top recruit Billy Preston $90,000 to play for Kansas. Preston enrolled at KU but never played following an automobile accident that led to the school investigating the ownership of a vehicle.
Attorneys for both Gatto and Code also said that a discussed $150,000 payment for recruit Nassir Little to attend the Adidas-sponsored University of Miami came about only after evidence would show, “the University of Arizona was going to pay, or offered to pay, $150,000 for [recruit] Nassir Little to go to Arizona,” Donnelly said. “… Jim was asked to match that offer.”
Donnelly also said the family of former North Carolina State player Dennis Smith Jr. received $40,000 while he was playing for the Wolfpack, although she denied that it was an inducement to sign with the school. “He grew up dreaming of playing for NC State,” Donnelly said.
NC State athletic director Debbie Yow said in a statement to Yahoo Sports that the school has “no tolerance for those who would choose to damage the reputation of this great university.”
“If any former employee was involved, they knew they were breaking the rules and chose to keep it hidden,” Yow said.
Meanwhile all the NCAA can do is wait for evidence to come out so it can conduct its own investigations. In a statement to Yahoo Sports, NCAA spokesperson Stacey Osburn said that the organization is closely monitoring the trial and “if information relevant to potential NCAA violations is uncovered, [the NCAA] will continue to follow up and investigate all the facts.”
The defense strategy is expected to be unified in painting college basketball as corrupt to its core with rules that no one follows, but merely tries to get around. The government is going to counter with a witness list featuring numerous school compliance directors who will show universities work aggressively to avoid NCAA violations and thus were defrauded by the defendants.
In the meantime, college basketball will continue to wait for additional dirt – and the ensuing promised evidence – to emerge from Manhattan.
(Pat Forde contributed to this story.)
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