Merl Code has no regrets, many questions after role in college basketball scandal
The former shoe company employee details allegations of corruption in new book
For Merl Code, it’s been just over four years since his arrest, but the memory of that day remains forever etched in his mind: The loud knocking at the front door of his home, the sight of men running through his yard as he walked down the steps, the presence of over a dozen FBI agents flooding his street as he stepped outside to check on the commotion.
“I’m still in my T-shirt and my drawers when I opened my door,” Code said. “They said they were the FBI and I remember telling them, ‘Y’all brought all of this for me?’ ”
In 2017, Code was arrested on charges of bribery and fraud conspiracy in connection with an FBI probe into the corruption in the world of college basketball, and was convicted in 2019.
In the time between his conviction and reporting to federal prison just over a week ago, Code wrote the book Black Market: An Insider’s Journey Into the High-Stakes World of College Basketball, which is billed as an exposé of college sports.
The book has caught the attention of Iona coach Rick Pitino, whose lawyer sent a cease-and-desist letter to Hanover Square Press, the book’s publisher, last week to halt the book’s March 1 release date.
In the book, of which Andscape received an advance copy, Code writes about getting the OK to make payments to the father of Brian Bowen (the NCAA alleges the amount was for $100,000 ), who had committed to play at Louisville before news of the corruption scandal broke in 2017. Code writes that Pitino signed off on the payment.
“As a consultant for Adidas, I did not act on my own, nor could I have done so. I simply ran the proposition by my bosses, who did the same after consulting with Rick Pitino, and the answer that came back from up high was, ‘Rick wants our help. Get it done.’ ”
After excerpts of the book were published, Pitino went to social media to deny the allegations.
For Code, the book attempts to address the allegations levied against him following his high-profile arrest (along with nine others, including former NBA star Chuck Person) that led to a major FBI announcement. During the FBI news conference came the announcement regarding people behind the corruption in college basketball: “We have your playbook.”
Of the 10 people arrested in a sport where white men hold positions of power, eight were Black.
“How is it that the people who are taking the fall for this are mostly Black?” Code told Andscape. “I’ve been made the scapegoat, the villain, the boogeyman. Everyone thinks I’m the corruption, but the corruption is the system that manipulates young Black men and young Black women through a network that allows those in power, typically white men, to be enriched.”
Code, as a shoe company employee who worked for brands that included Adidas and Nike, also connected the brand he represented with rising basketball talent.
He writes about how he became connected in the early years with Zion Williamson and Anthony Davis and how sneaker companies catered to rising stars, which occasionally included helping their families when faced with dire circumstances.
In a chapter in which he mentions how shoe company money was directed to the AAU team coached by Williamson’s parents, Code wrote:
“Coaches get boosters to give parents jobs, or give them discounted rent, or whatever else makes sense for the situation. There’s really no difference between that and just giving them cash, but it’s easier to get it done. The way I saw it, these kids and parents should make the most of it. Otherwise everybody involved is cashing in except them.”
As Code prepared for trial with his lawyers, he was confident that he’d be exonerated. But three days into the 2019 trial, that optimism disappeared.
“The judge wouldn’t allow us to put the coaches and aides who were asking for the support from the company that I worked for on the stand,” Code said. “You got coaches on wiretapped phone calls saying, ‘Hey, man, we need your help.’ ”
Code said the judge did not allow his legal team to call key individuals to the stand even with those wiretaps and transcripts.
“You’re not going to let the coaches testify? You’re not going to allow us to call the athletic directors to the stand? You’re not going to play the phone calls?” Code said. “How do you win? The only story the jury got was their narrative. When you have that information, and I’m not allowed to utilize it is absolute garbage.”
Code said that he went from a life as a popular figure in the world of grassroots and college basketball before his arrest to being an outcast following his arrest and conviction.
“It’s a self-preservation business, and everyone scattered like roaches,” Code said. “I provided something that a lot of people needed, and I was no use to people when those transactions could no longer take place.”
As his book is released this week, Code won’t be in a position for a book signing. He reported to prison on Feb. 18, and when he spoke to Andscape the day before his nine-month sentence started, he said he had no regrets.
“If I can help a family, I’m going to help a family,” Code said. “What we need to do is stop picking on these Black kids who play sports that make [others] tons of money. There’s nowhere else in this country where they are capping people’s ability to earn. And that’s not right.”