On Tuesday morning, the Department of Justice dropped a bombshell.
A two-year investigation into college basketball resulted in criminal complaints being filed against a senior executive at Adidas, several sports agents, and at least four assistant basketball coaches at Division I programs, including Auburn’s Chuck Person. The findings have already led to the dismissal of Louisville Cardinals head coach Rick Pitino.
And the FBI is probably not done. On Wednesday, the FBI subpoenaed Nike employees regarding Nike’s EYBL league. The EYBL features many of the top high school basketball recruits. It’s not clear what, exactly, will come of it — but it’s probably not good. We don’t know yet what the fallout for SEC schools will be, but here’s a quick primer.
This isn’t exactly news to anyone in the industry
If you follow college basketball at all — and especially if you follow college basketball recruiting — you’ve probably known or at least suspected for years that something’s going on that isn’t on the up-and-up. Just three years ago, Antonio Blakeney committed to Louisville -- only to decommit shortly after. It probably wasn’t a coincidence that Blakeney played for a Nike-sponsored AAU team, and Louisville is an Adidas school.
If you ever wondered why players for Nike AAU teams almost always end up playing for college teams sponsored by Nike, and the same for Adidas, well, this criminal complaint should give you an idea.
In one allegation, an Adidas executive allegedly funneled $100,000 to the family of a recruit — presumed to be current Louisville player Brian Bowen -- to assure that Bowen would attend Louisville. So far, no evidence has come to light that Louisville was making the payments itself — the allegations suggest that Adidas may have acted independently in order to help one of the company’s “flagship” programs.
Why is the FBI involved and not the NCAA?
Well, the short version is that, in steering prospects first to affiliated colleges and, later, to sports agents and financial advisors, they may have committed various crimes. here’s bribery, wire fraud, and money laundering (for the attempts to funnel the money to prospects in a manner that would evade the FBI and the NCAA.)
The longer version is that NCAA investigations into these matters have often been stymied by a code of silence among coaches. Everybody knows what’s going on, but talking about it gets you blackballed from the coaching profession — while taking your show cause penalty and not naming names means you can still be a college head coach later on, and you might even have a coaching job in the NBA while you serve your NCAA-mandated timeout.
But that code of silence only works when the penalties are a slap on the wrist from the NCAA. People talk when they’re potentially looking at prison time, and what’s more, the FBI has tools at its disposal that the NCAA doesn’t — like subpoena power and the ability to obtain warrants to tap the phones of the targets of an investigation.
The NCAA runs into problems when witnesses don’t want to talk, because the NCAA doesn’t really have any way to make witnesses talk. The FBI does.
What does this mean for Auburn?
So far, Auburn is the only SEC school that’s been directly implicated in this, as assistant coach Chuck Person was arrested (you can read the criminal complaint here) and reportedly could face up to 80 years in prison if convicted. Person has been suspended without pay from his coaching position.
What’s scarier for Auburn fans is the nature of the allegations. Person was alleged to have accepted bribes from agents in exchange for steering players to their services. If those are only former players, the worst that can happen is that Auburn has to vacate past wins (and since Auburn hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 2003, it’s highly unlikely they’d have to vacate anything of substance) and potentially take scholarship losses.
The danger is that if any current players are involved in this, they might have forfeited their NCAA eligibility — a concern for a team that expected to be improved this year. Auburn itself seems to be prepared for the worst; the Tigers have already announced that they will offer full refunds on season ticket purchases for the 2017-18 season — a suggestion that whatever might happen, it might result in a substantially worse product on the court this year.
What’s more, five-star 2018 recruit E.J. Montgomery announced on Wednesday that he would decommit from the Auburn program. Head coach Bruce Pearl’s job may be safe — for now, anyway — but there is likely to be more fallout coming from this.
While only a handful of schools have been directly implicated thus far, South Carolina has at least been indirectly implicated in this. Lamont Evans, who was an assistant coach for the Gamecocks from 2012-16 before leaving for Oklahoma State, was also arrested in connection to the investigation.
Evans was involved in the recruitment of numerous current and former South Carolina players as a result, including Sindarius Thornwell and P.J. Dozier. Both Thornwell and Dozier are no longer at South Carolina, but if either of them are declared ineligible after the fact, South Carolina would likely have to vacate its Final Four appearance.
And who knows if any current players will be declared ineligible due to their connection to Evans?
Everybody else: wait and see
Again, we don’t yet know the full scope of this. It’s possible that only Auburn and South Carolina are implicated in this — it’s also possible that other SEC schools will be implicated. Has your school recruited any players who played for an AAU team sponsored by Adidas or Nike? Congratulations, you might be implicated in this, at least indirectly.
The FBI isn’t done with its investigation, but look for the NCAA to start checking into who all is eligible to play college basketball.