The long-awaited federal trial that has pulled Arizona into a national controversy over allegations of college basketball corruption is scheduled to start Monday in New York City.
Among the big questions in a Manhattan federal courtroom: Will even more players and coaches be accused of receiving bribes? How will Arizona Wildcats’ head coach Sean Miller, who has not been charged in the case, be portrayed? Will defense attorneys, as they’ve promised, pull back the curtain on the business of college basketball?
Arizona sports fans are expected to closely follow the trial, where prosecutors will lay out their case of an alleged bribery scheme involving an aspiring sports agent, a former Adidas consultant and assistant coaches.
“The thing I find fascinating, as a sports fan, is I wonder how long this has been going on? This is probably just the tip of the iceberg. And who knows about other sports?” said Michael Black, a Phoenix criminal defense attorney, who is not involved in the trial but follows college basketball.
Here’s a look at the upcoming trial:
What’s the trial about?
Prosecutors say Christian Dawkins, an upstart sports agent, and Merl Code Jr., an Adidas consultant and former Nike employee, were trying to attract clients to Dawkins’ company by bribing coaches at NCAA Division I universities. In exchange for cash, the coaches would agree to steer student-athletes to Dawkins once the players turned pro, court records say.
A federal complaint alleges three assistant men’s basketball coaches received thousands of dollars in bribes: Arizona’s Emanuel “Book” Richardson, University of Southern California’s Tony Bland and Oklahoma State’s Lamont Evans. All three have agreed to plead guilty to one felony count of bribery, but Dawkins and Code have entered pleas of not guilty and are scheduled for trial.
What is Dawkins accused of doing?
Prosecutors say Dawkins, an aspiring sports agent in his 20s from Michigan, began making bribe payments in early 2016 to Evans. The payments began when Evans coached at the University of South Carolina and continued when he moved to Oklahoma State University. He’s accused of accepting at least $22,000 in bribes.
Dawkins met with Richardson in June 2017 in New York City, where the assistant coach “agreed he would steer student-athletes” that he coached at Arizona to Dawkins, court records say.
Court documents say FBI wiretaps captured Richardson saying he was “happy” to direct certain players to retain the services of the company controlled by Dawkins. He added that he was committed to steering a particular men’s basketball player to the company, saying, “there’s no ifs, ands about that. I’ve already talked with (the player’s) mom, I’ve talked with his cousin.”
The court documents do not name that player.
At the end of the June meeting, Richardson received $5,000 cash. He got another $15,000 the next month after he allegedly told Dawkins that he needed the money “ASAP” to try to recruit a top point guard. The indictment identified the player only as “Player-5.”
Prosecutors say a similar scheme unfolded with USC’s Bland accepting $13,000 in bribes after a July 2017 meeting in a Las Vegas hotel room. Bland also allegedly directed Dawkins to pay or facilitate payment of at least $9,000 to families or close confidantes of student-athletes at USC.
What’s Code accused of doing?
Code is a 45-year-old former Clemson University basketball star who worked for Nike and then later as a consultant for Adidas, where he was often in contact with college basketball players and coaches.
Around June 2017, Code was recruited to work for a new sports management company formed by Dawkins.
Prosecutors say Code’s job was to introduce Dawkins and his partners to college basketball coaches for the purposes of ultimately bribing them. Court documents say a wiretap in July 2017 captured Code saying he expected to be paid $5,000 for each men’s college basketball coach that he introduced to Dawkins.
Recently, Code found himself back in the news when attorney Michael Avenatti named Code in tweets that allege a major basketball scandal involving Nike and payments to players.
Avenatti claimed in one of his tweets that “corruption at Nike was rampant with Merl Code and increased” after Code left for Adidas.
Code’s attorney, Mark C. Moore, told USA TODAY, “At this point, we are not commenting on Michael Avenatti’s rantings.”
The allegations made by Avenatti are not part of this federal trial.
Why are the payments wrong?
College athletes must be amateurs, according to the NCAA, the governing body for college sports. They can receive university scholarships. But student-athletes, prospects and their relatives aren’t allowed to receive benefits such as money, travel or clothing from outside sources.
Coaches and other team staff can’t facilitate contact between student-athletes and agents or financial advisers. NCAA rules also prohibit college staffers from receiving money, “directly or indirectly from outside sources” for actions involving the student-athlete.
Attorneys for the defendants, however, contend that the NCAA is a private organization with its own rules. Violating those rules doesn’t constitute a crime under federal law, they argued in a motion, asking a federal judge to dismiss the criminal indictment.
They called the government’s strategy a “novel theory” inconsistent with the interpretation of law that could “extend the boundaries of federal criminal law well beyond constitutional limits.”
The criminal charges have re-ignited a national debate over whether the NCAA should allow college athletes to be paid.
How will the federal trial unfold?
To convict the defendants, prosecutors will have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defndants gave (or conspired to give) money to college basketball coaches with the intent to influence the coaches.
The trial is expected to last about three weeks. The prosecution and defense will lay out their opening arguments, then prosecutors will call witnesses and introduce evidence.
The defense will follow and present its case, though defense attorneys typically call fewer witnesses and chip away instead at the prosecution’s case.
The most anticipated testimony was to come from Arizona’s Miller and Louisiana State University’s head men’s basketball coach Will Wade, who are not charged with crimes but had been expected to be called as witnesses. However, on Friday a judge ruled neither will be required to testify.
Defense attorneys want to introduce recorded telephone conversations, text messages and emails gathered by the FBI that they say refute corruption allegations.
Prosecutors also expect to introduce recorded telephone conversations as evidence.
A central question to the case swirls around whether FBI wiretaps captured Miller talking to Dawkins. And if so, what do those conversations reveal?
ESPN reported last year that FBI wiretaps intercepted telephone conversations between Miller and Dawkins in which they discussed paying $100,000 to ensure star freshman Deandre Ayton signed with the Wildcats. But Miller has vehemently denied the report. He has said he never met or spoke to Dawkins until after Ayton publicly announced he was coming to the school.
What happens after the trial?
Once the trial is over, don’t expect the basketball scandal to fade out.
An outside law firm hired by the UA is conducting an independent review of the FBI allegations, and University President Robert C. Robbins has promised to share the results. It’s unknown when that review will be done.
The NCAA, meanwhile, is investigating whether rules were broken and, if so, the university and/or Miller could face penalties.
The NCAA could impose fines, limitations on post-season play, limits on the number of athletic scholarships the basketball program can award and recruiting restrictions.
If a recruit took money from a sports agent, he could be deemed ineligible by the NCAA and any games he played in vacated, said Alicia Jessop, a sports law professor at Pepperdine University, who is not involved in the federal trial. The school also could be at risk of having to return revenue earned during that time.
Coaches can also be suspended under NCAA rules.
Though no evidence has been introduced that Miller knew of the alleged payments, a head coach under NCAA rules can be held responsible if his assistant coaches commit major NCAA violations. The NCAA considers major violations to be things like cheating in the classroom or giving money or gifts to a player to try and lure him to a school.
What’s the status of the other federal trials?
The FBI investigation into college basketball has resulted in two other trials, one of which concluded in October. Dawkins and Code were also defendants in that trial, along with former Adidas executive James Gatto. The pay-for-play scheme attempted to pay the father of recruit Brian “Tugs” Bowen in return for his son attending the University of Louisville.
After the scandal broke, Louisville fired head coach Rick Pitino and two assistants.
A jury found Dawkins, Code and Gatto guilty of wire fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud. Gatto was sentenced to nine months in prison and Code and Dawkins each received sentences of six months. The three plan to appeal and are free pending the appeal.
The third federal trial set for June involves Chuck Person, a former Auburn University assistant men’s basketball coach, and Rashan Michel, a former NBA official and Atlanta-based suit maker who catered mostly to professional athletes.
Michel allegedly solicited and accepted bribes to introduce an FBI witness, who was posing as a financial manager, to college coaches. At least one of those coaches, Person, allegedly accepted bribes to steer college basketball players and their families to the manager and to Michel’s clothing company.
Person has agreed to plead guilty to a bribery conspiracy charge and will be sentenced later this year. Prosecutors said he accepted $91,500 in bribes to direct players with NBA potential to a Pittsburgh-based financial adviser.