It took wiretaps, confidential informants and the power of the U.S. government to bring college basketball to its knees this week.
As the FBI turned the spotlight on what Yahoo Sports columnist Pete Thamel has termed the “thriving black market of college basketball,” there are a lot of worried college coaches, administrators, sports agents and players.
Working out of New York, the two-year federal investigation led to 10 indictments of assistant college coaches, a shoe company executive and others on charges ranging from bribery to fraud, with conspiracy thrown in for good measure. Auburn University assistant basketball coach Chuck Person was one of those indicted. University of Alabama associate athletics director Kobie Baker, who was not indicted, resigned this week after he was connected to the investigation.
Legendary Louisville Coach Rick Pitino, who has a contract with Adidas, the shoe company involved, was relieved of his coaching duties this week though he was not specifically named in the indictment.
Here is a bet he won’t be the last one out of a job. More shoes will drop before all of the skeletons are out of this closet.
In his column, Thamel asked an unnamed former NCAA official how deep this scandal might go. The answer: “This may be the biggest college sports story of our lifetime and, ironically, the least surprising.”
Especially if you lived in Columbus when Tony Adams was the city’s Parks and Recreation director.
We saw the precursor to this saga starting in 2006 and ending with the 2011 Muscogee County Superior Court convictions of Adams, his trusted lieutenant Herman Porter and William Fox, a Marietta, Ga., man with ties to AAU basketball.
After months of investigation by the Columbus Police and extensive reporting by the Ledger-Enquirer, Adams and Fox pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy to defraud the city and were sentenced to probation and community service and fined $25,000 each. Porter pleaded guilty to three misdemeanor theft charges and was sentenced to 12 months’ consecutive probation on each and ordered to pay the city $20,000 in restitution.
What police were investigating was fraud in the Parks and Rec Department connected to an elite AAU basketball team coached by Adams, with Porter as his primary talent scout. Nike, the ubiquitous shoe and apparel empire, was at the center of the investigation because of a contract the Oregon-based company had with Adams and Porter to field an AAU basketball team. Adams and Porter denied the existence of the contract until a copy of it was found in the city computer system.
Adams and Porter made a mistake by mingling the Nike money with city money and city facilities. And they paid for it.
In retrospect, the Columbus Police Department may have uncovered the tip of a wide-sweeping national scandal, in light of the recent FBI indictments. The feds have declared they’ve discovered the playbook used by college basketball coaches to coerce and control players — and they’re playing hardball, with a special phone line set up for informants.
Back in 2010, the college basketball recruiting system was already broken and corrupt. All you had to do was take one good look at Adams, Porter and the Georgia Blazers.
But proving it was another thing. The corruption in college athletics wasn’t the focus of the Columbus Police investigation, but it would be interesting to see what would have happened if the FBI had been brought into that case in 2010. The lid may have blown off this pressure cooker five years before it did.
Columbus Police were tasked with figuring out why city-owned Parks and Rec vans were heading down to south Georgia and north Florida to pick up elite athletes and bring them to Columbus for practice and then to showcase tournament trips all over the United States.
The CPD also wanted to know why a special bank account was closed in the wake of a city audit that revealed many issues involving Parks and Rec. And it was interested in what happened to the considerable admission money taken in by Adams, Porter and their helpers for tournaments involving local high school basketball teams.
In context of the current FBI investigation, we can see what Adams and Porter were doing. Shoe and apparel companies win when professional athletes — or youngsters labeled as can’t-miss prospects — wear their stuff. And that is how they sell more stuff.
When the heat was turned up on Adams and Porter, out-of-town lawyers started showing up. The first was Donald Jackson out of Montgomery, a specialist in NCAA eligibility cases who rabidly defended Adams and Porter, saying they were giving kids opportunities they would otherwise would never have. Then when the Nike contract became public, Jackson was gone.
When it came time for the criminal cases in 2011, standing next to Porter was Manny Arora, a high-profile Atlanta criminal defense attorney who once represented NFL cornerback Adam “Pacman” Jones. Did Porter, who was pleading guilty to three misdemeanors, really need “Pacman” Jones’ lawyer?
Big-time lawyers sure seemed to be interested in an apparent run-of-the-mill case of public corruption in Columbus, Ga.
By furnishing shoes, uniforms, bags and cash for travel to guys like Adams and Porter, Nike got its equipment in the hands of the future stars.
In 2010, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope of Greenville High school was playing for Adams’ Blazers team. Then he signed with the University of Georgia, a Nike school, where he played for two seasons before being drafted in the first round by the NBA’s Pistons and playing in Detroit for four years. This summer, he signed an $18-million, one-year free agent deal with the Los Angeles Lakers. Yes, he wears Nike.
Jarvis Jones was on that Blazers’ basketball team. When he graduated from Carver High School, he was one of the top football prospects in the nation and had signed with the University of Southern California, a Nike school. An injury got the linebacker his release from USC and he came home to star for his home-state Georgia Bulldogs.
Jones, also a first-round draft pick, wore Nike while playing four seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers. This year, he signed with the Arizona Cardinals but did not make the roster because of injuries.
See the pattern? Get them early and keep them when they reach the big time. That is what Nike and the other shoe companies were doing.
And this whole game — one that the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of New York now claims is criminal — starts with AAU coaches and talent scouts like Adams and Porter.