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Black assistant coaches were scapegoats in the NCAA recruiting trials

The criminal justice system let the real culprits — head coaches, colleges and NCAA — off the hook

What do you get when you mix an NCAA recruiting scandal with the U.S. criminal justice system? Predictably, more black men in jail.

After an extensive investigation by the federal government, 10 arrests and two federal trials, we have learned that in a sport/business where an obscene amount of money is made on the backs of black male labor, black men were the fall guys when the inevitable corruption was unearthed.

With an assist from the NCAA college basketball culture, which protects head coaches, agents and university heads with a layer of expendable, misguided assistant coaches, the criminal justice system stayed true to form and punished the least powerful and most vulnerable of targets: runners and assistant coaches.

The FBI made multiple arrests as part of their investigation into “the dark underbelly of college basketball” recruiting, as characterized by Joon H. Kim, the acting U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York at the time. Among 10 people arrested were four assistant college basketball coaches who were charged with multiple counts of fraud and bribery. Those coaches — Chuck Person (Auburn), Lamont Evans (South Carolina, Oklahoma State), Emanuel Richardson (Arizona) and Anthony Bland (USC) — are black. All four of them eventually pleaded guilty to bribery charges.

Also arrested and indicted were Adidas executive James Gatto, Adidas consultant Merl Code and Christian Dawkins, a former runner for NBA agent Andy Miller. Code and Dawkins are also black.

A second trial ended last week with Dawkins and Code convicted on bribery charges. The two await sentencing for additional prison time.

Last fall, Gatto, Code and Dawkins were convicted of defrauding universities by paying players to attend Adidas-affiliated schools and thereby making the universities vulnerable to NCAA sanctions. The three were later sentenced to prison terms of nine months, six months and six months, respectively.

The novel theory of the second trial was that Dawkins and Code bribed college assistant coaches with money to pay star players to induce them to attend the assistant coaches’ schools. In turn, those coaches would funnel the players back to Dawkins’ fledgling sports agency. Thus, it wasn’t the paying of players that was illegal, it was the payments to the assistant coaches that broke the law because they severed the fiduciary duty that the coaches owed to the universities and that the universities expected from their employees.

The money used to pay the coaches, in this instance, came from the government as part of the undercover investigation.

Yes, having a player on your team who accepted money to play there does make you vulnerable to NCAA sanctions, but universities can be complicit in this behavior. It is debatable whether college assistant coaches are acting clandestinely.

“We were definitely paying players, yes,” Dawkins testified during the second trial. “The idea that it’s an amateur world is not real.”

So if a head coach, an athletic director or university administrator covers their eyes and ears in order to not see or hear wrongdoing, does it mean they actually don’t know or shouldn’t reasonably be aware of what’s going on?

“I’m pretty sure that most of these [head] coaches just want results. Will they tell you that they care [about corruption]? Of course they’ll tell you that,” said Len Elmore, a CBS Sports college basketball analyst, attorney and former college and NBA player. Elmore is also a former NBA agent, and his son Stephen is a former assistant men’s basketball coach.

So if a head coach, an athletic director or a university administrator covers their eyes and ears in order to not see or hear wrongdoing, does it mean they actually don’t know or shouldn’t reasonably be aware of what’s going on?

While Elmore doubted that the universities themselves were culpable, he was not willing to let the head coaches off the hook. “But in the end, if you can bring in a great player without any corruption attached to it, [head coaches] will be happy. They don’t want to know about it. It’s hear no evil, see no evil.”

There is evidence that at least a couple of head coaches did know what was going on and were active participants in the pay-for-play schemes. Arizona head coach Sean Miller and LSU head coach Will Wade both were implicated on wiretaps or surveillance video recordings. Yet, both Miller and Wade are still employed by their respective schools and were spared from having to testify during Dawkins and Code’s bribery trial.

Most questionable, however, is the government’s idea that cases like these get to the source of the “dark underbelly” of college sports, that those charged and convicted are the real players in the industry, or that their elimination will change much.

Rick Pitino is the only implicated head coach to have lost his job, but that was more likely due to an accumulation of offenses rather than a direct result of the federal investigation.

Instead of focusing on the real problems in college sports and the real money behind them, such as the illegal money infused into the sport by professional basketball agents, four low-level assistant coaches and three other relatively low-level basketball lifers were the targets.

“You heard testimony of some of the biggest agents in sports that are cheating and doing what [Dawkins has] been doing for 25 to 30 years and they never sat in a federal courtroom,” Dawkins’ lawyer Steve Haney said after the second trial. “But for some reason, he was in a federal courtroom.”

Sports, race and the criminal justice system

Then there’s the racial aspect. Seven of the nine people who pleaded guilty or were convicted based on the federal government investigation are black, and eight of nine are men of color. When you look at the demographics within college basketball, the racial disparity in those arrested and convicted becomes more curious.

According to the NCAA Demographics Database, in 2018, black athletes accounted for 55 percent of the players in men’s Division I college basketball Power 5 conferences, plus the Big East, while blacks account for 56 percent of the assistant coaches. Of the head coaches in 2018, 76% were white men.

Therefore, while blacks represent the majority of players in college basketball, driving its entertainment value and revenue streams, they are also scapegoated as almost its sole source of corruption. All of the coaches charged and convicted in these NCAA corruption cases are black.

Of course, it’s bigger than the NCAA. By now, we all know the discrepancies in arrests, convictions and sentencing that negatively affect black people. Black people are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of whites, and if blacks and Hispanics were incarcerated at the same rate as whites, prison and jail populations would decline by almost 40 percent, according to the NAACP Criminal Justice Fact Sheet.

“We know well that black men do not fare well in the criminal justice system, in any context,” Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, told me.

“[Black men] are frequently targeted by law enforcement; they are subject to more aggressive prosecution and often subject to tougher sentences. That ugly reality infects every aspect of our criminal justice system, and in some respects it is not surprising to see the statistics play out in this context in the way that they have,” Clarke said.

Prosecutors didn’t go far enough

It is painfully clear that for whatever reason and despite its stated purpose, the government failed to pursue the root of the NCAA’s recruiting corruption problem and instead targeted the low-hanging fruit for easy convictions.

“I think it’s an important moment to take a step back and think about the problem that the [government] sought to attack in the first place,” Clarke stated. “They made this announcement with such fanfare and bold proclamations, and you would expect at the end of the day to see more high-level indictments of big agents and head coaches, and perhaps some of the universities institutionally implicated as well. Instead, it feels like they’ve gone after folks very low on the totem pole, folks who don’t have great influence or power when you think about the broader landscape.”

In a statement from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, after the verdicts in the second trial, Manhattan U.S. Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman said: “Today, Christian Dawkins and Merl Code were found guilty a second time for their roles in corrupting the world of college basketball, in this case for conspiring to bribe multiple Division I men’s basketball coaches. And while their convictions mark the culmination of the criminal charges announced by this Office in September 2017, they should also make clear to those who might be tempted to engage in the sort of misconduct these prosecutions have only begun to expose: that bribery is a crime, one this Office is prepared to charge criminally and prosecute to the full extent of the law.”

“The racial dimensions of this are hard to ignore. The people who were implicated at the end of the day are disproportionally African American, and it raises questions about whether race colored the approach.” — Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law

The optics and statistics of those targeted and punished and those not in this case make it almost impossible not to point to institutional racism within the criminal justice system.

“The racial dimensions of this are hard to ignore. The people who were implicated at the end of the day are disproportionally African American, and it raises questions about whether race colored the approach,” Clarke said.

Institutional racism is not just a criminal justice problem, it is also at play at the NCAA level. Recruiting is often the duty of an assistant coach on the staff. Up-and-coming black coaches are often designated as recruiters more than their white counterparts are, and it is tougher for them to move up the ladder into more substantive coaching positions.

“African American assistant coaches, those were the only coaches that went down as a result of legal action,” said Elmore. “And I’ve always maintained that, unfortunately, the black assistant — at least one of them — is always charged with trying to recruit our young men, and the pressure is on to try to assemble the best group that you possibly can. And out there in the underground marketplace, they’ve got to be able to wheel and deal.

“I think [the federal convictions are] just the tip of the iceberg,” Elmore continued. “I think that so many young coaches of color get pressured into [breaking the rules/law] because their jobs are dependent upon bringing in players and not necessarily actual coaching and development of young people.”

The question is whether that pressure is coming directly from head coaches who seek a buffer between themselves and any illegal conduct or whether it is some internal pressure that these black assistant coaches are putting on themselves to succeed. As Elmore said, hear no evil, see no evil seems to be the prevailing attitude of head coaches, at least.

Black assistant coaches must be given opportunities to be more than recruiters and valued for more than simply knowing how to relate to the black players who dominate the game. Maybe then they will account for more than 17 percent of Power 5 college basketball coaches.

The current NCAA system, where black athletes create the revenue for everyone else’s benefit while other black people are scapegoated and made to take the fall to maintain the status quo, preserves, as Clarke told me, “that nagging sense of inequality that looms heavy over all of this.”

Jamal Murphy is a sports writer, attorney and executive producer and co-host of the Bill Rhoden On Sports podcast. Jamal has covered and written about the NBA, NFL, MLB, NHL, college basketball, men's and women's tennis, boxing and fantasy sports. This Brooklyn native is a recovering Knicks and Jets fan, but is still hanging in there with the Mets.