‘The Scheme’ proves FBI hoops crackdown fell flat

Christian Dawkins stands outside federal court Wednesday, May 8, 2019, in New York. Dawkins and youth basketball coach Merl Code were convicted on a conspiracy count, but acquitted of some other charges. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
Christian Dawkins stands outside federal court Wednesday, May 8, 2019, in New York. Dawkins and youth basketball coach Merl Code were convicted on a conspiracy count, but acquitted of some other charges. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Twenty years ago, Don Yaeger and I wrote a book called “Sole Influence,” which investigated how Nike and Adidas were funding high school and AAU basketball in an effort to be the company that found the next Michael Jordan who could move millions of their shoes to young consumers.

By 2003, they’d found him — LeBron James. The business continued though.

Little did we know that eventually, a paperback copy would find its way to a basketball-obsessed middle schooler in Saginaw, Michigan. Nor could we have imagined that rather than serve as an entertaining look at various characters and controversies who operate behind the curtain of the sport, it would inspire him to launch a long-shot dream of becoming a hoops middleman/sports agent.

“It wasn’t meant to be a how-to guide,” I later joked with that former kid, Christian Dawkins, who was 25 at the time. 

This was October of 2018 and we were staying at the same hotel during his first federal trial in Manhattan. Dawkins, and an aunt who was there for moral support, laughed at the joke. He always saw the absurdity of this entire ordeal, even as he sat in the defendant’s chair in a courthouse that more commonly prosecutes terrorists, drug kingpins and Ponzi schemers. 

Yet here was Dawkins, on the wrong end of a multi-million-dollar, years-long federal investigation into … college basketball recruiting.

The first trial was for somehow defrauding college basketball programs by supplying them with paid-for recruits that they all but begged him (or literally begged him) to deliver. The second one came in the Spring of 2019 for supposedly bribing coaches, a concept he furiously opposed yet agreed to after the undercover FBI agents who were pretending to be investors kept insisting.

Dawkins lost both cases and has been sentenced to a year and a day in prison for the latter and three months for the former. He’s currently out on appeal. He considers himself victorious because he never cooperated with the government and instead turned much of the case into a farce.

Dawkins is now the subject of the HBO documentary “The Scheme” telling his unlikely story to the masses for the first time. It premiered Tuesday. In it, he’s every bit as whip smart, funny and compelling as anyone who knows him, knows him to be.  Despite the convictions, he has a big future ahead of him.

Some viewers will no doubt side with him. Others will see him as a guy more than willing to hustle in the dark to get ahead. Both sides have a point. He admits he’s no one’s grand champion of business ethics.

Still, was this really a federal offense? Or as he quips in the movie, should he really have found himself in a jail cell near the Mexican drug kingpin El Chapo? (“No offense to El Chapo or what he has going on.”)

Since I co-authored the original book, covered the trials and scandal extensively and wound up in the documentary, here are answers to some basic questions about the entire story.

Will anything come of it?

In the grand scheme of things, no. Director Pat Kondelis cleverly named the film “The Scheme” because it has multiple meanings. There was Dawkins’ “scheme” to buy the loyalties of players and their families to stock his sports agency, sure. 

There was also a “scheme” by financial advisor Marty Blazer to use the FBI to get out of stealing millions from his clients. And a “scheme” by the FBI to get Dawkins, but for plenty of reasons, no one of any actual consequence in high school, college or professional basketball. 

And mostly there is a “scheme” that the NCAA employs — “amateurism” — that allows them to avoid taxes and direct payments to players, all while having their coaches either look the other way or actively participate in an underground economy. 

Without the concept of amateurism, none of this occurs. It would be perfectly fine for Nike or Adidas to give some money to a high school kid to play basketball in their shoes. It’s the same way, say, a tech company can hire a high schooler for a summer internship, and he or she would still be eligible for an academic scholarship to study engineering.

Amateurism is a holdover from 1800s England, where the rich were able to dominate organized athletics because they had the time to practice. The poor were too busy laboring six or seven days a week.

When some of the wealthy decided the best way to stock their teams was to pay superior working-class athletes to play (thus giving them the time to excel) “amateurism” was born from the backlash. It was suddenly against the rules to be paid to play. It was somehow noble to play “for the love of the game.” Whatever.

It took root even though it was created to assure an uneven playing field. Eventually, it was so loathsome that even the International Olympic Committee gave up on it. That was in the 1980s. 

The NCAA still holds it dear. Of course, it is extremely profitable for them. They’ve marketed it, fought attempts to reform it, lobbied politicians to maintain it and battled in court to keep it legal. 

“The Scheme” does an excellent job of showing its absurdities and collateral damage. In a better world, it might shame someone into change.

This isn’t that world. The NCAA won’t care about “The Scheme.” It doesn’t want to change a thing.

Will any coaches get in trouble?

This is a little bit tougher to predict. It’s unlikely LSU coach Will Wade and Arizona coach Sean Miller, each of whom are heard talking with Dawkins on wire-tapped conversations, will leave the film positive reviews on RottenTomatoes.

It’s likely their employers will watch and listen. Will they be humiliated? Sure, especially LSU when it comes to Wade. Dawkins refers to Wade as a “gangster” for essentially getting caught on a wire tap offering to pay players, only to refuse to meet with his bosses to explain said wire tap conversation and still keeping his job.

LSU brushed off his “strong ass offer” call when it was originally reported — albeit without audio. Does that change now that everyone can hear it on national television? Maybe. Maybe not.

If LSU didn’t care then and were willing to fight for its coach with the NCAA, which has launched an investigation, then why would it care now? Ditto for Arizona, which has stood by Miller no matter what has come out. 

In the past, this stuff would doom a coaching career. These days, the NCAA is seen as so feckless and coaches are so good at rallying fanatical booster support that they can win power plays against athletic directors, it can be easily ignored.

So don’t count on much reaction.

What’s the most ridiculous part of the story?

Well, there are a bunch of them. 

Start with the fact that Marty Blazer, the Pittsburgh financial planner, avoided prison time for stealing money ($2.3 million from clients) because he was able to help set up this entire three-year FBI operation to get Dawkins and co-defendants Merl Code and James Gatto for giving people money (thousands to players and parents).

There’s also the FBI undercover agents insisting that Dawkins give money to college basketball assistant coaches despite his objections to the entire concept. Worse, they were listening to his phone calls to Code, among others, where he repeatedly discussed how stupid and pointless the idea was and how he was only doing it because they insisted. He got busted for that anyway.

That might not be entrapment, but it seems like some dirty, dirty pool.

Justice?

Was this all a waste of time and money?

To say the least. 

At their initial press conference detailing the investigation, way back in 2017, the FBI and the Southern District of New York promised to blow up college basketball and pursue any coach who was breaking NCAA rules.

“We have your playbook,” was the most memorable line. They at least sounded serious.

Instead, they got a few assistant coaches, a few anonymous middle men and in an effort to win those cases, hid most of the most damning evidence that would actually (possibly) cause college sports to clean up its act. 

The end result is nothing has changed except coaches are far more careful talking on the phone these days and everyone in basketball uses Signal, the disappearing and better secure text message app.

That and the schools who were caught up in alleged violations have been able to co-opt the prosecutors argument that they were victims of Dawkins et al, even if such an argument is beyond laughable to anyone who knows anything about how this works.

Somehow, a huge effort to bust the cheaters just empowered and excused them. 

At least it all made for an entertaining movie, though.

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