WHICH WAY IS THE RIGHT WAY FOR STUDENT ATHLETES?
Updated: Jan 30, 2021
We've seen several new changes happening in the world of college basketball over the last few years, and this has created a landscape that is very difficult to follow on a day-to-day basis. As the NCAA mulls whether or not to pay student athletes, and just this week in fact, have come up with a plan, most likely to be voted on in early 2021, that may indeed do just that. This plan, of course, would not involve allowing student-athletes to refer to any brand or university logos themselves, while promoting their own likeness for commercial value. I can see this becoming very murky however, in that the only way most of these athletes are known, is through the university for which they play. All kinds of issues could arise from this, in all major competitive amateur sports, especially given the youth and relative naiveté of most of these youngsters, we could begin to see a true shark tank forming in the financial waters of this already desperate and struggling economy.
Reggie Bush was quoted in a recent Playboy magazine article as having prognosticated just that problem - that student athletes are going to be facing a real problem financially when they are thrust into a society of professional sharks, with large sums of money in their hands at a very young age, and they will essentially become live bait to be taken for a ride as soon as they receive that money, and enter this incestuous arena. I thought Bush made an excellent point, and the idea of us having a very large and immediate need for systems to be put into place in order to educate these youngsters from the dangers of being taken for a ride, and losing everything they’ve gained, will be at the forefront of the debate when the NCAA is called upon to vote on this in January in the first place. Without programs such as these in place, we may see scandals the likes of which won’t even compare to that which we just saw unfold in 2017.
That which I am referring to is of course the FBI probe into college basketball recruiting and cheating, which resulted in several arrests of prominent basketball coaches, assistant coaches, families, boosters, and sneaker company executives, all of whom were exploiting the system for their own personal financial gains, in much the same way that the NCAA has been accused of doing for so long, and of course still is right up to this day. The NCAA system is one that was compared by the mother of one prominent recruit, Wendell Carter, as having a structure that has only been duplicated in “both slavery and the US prison system.” (video:www.kentucky.com)
The most shocking revelations for me, came in the HBO documentary “The Scheme,” which clearly illustrates how the FBI essentially forced the hand of some of the major players in the game, most notably Christian Dawkins, a well-known young and ambitious recruiter who had started at a very young age with a player-ranking website, and had a father who was a coach for a prominent high-school basketball team in Michigan, was able to foster numerous relationships with players all over the country, and eventually connect with a major sports agent to ultimately create a business of his own that helped place these young recruits into universities, of course with a price tag attached.
Among the schools and coaches hardest hit by this, was Rick Pitino, formerly of Louisville, a school that has been flooded with allegations of a lack of institutional control and illegal recruiting methods, and is one of the schools known to have a major deal with Adidas. A whopping four of their assistant coaches were arrested in the FBI probe, and two more of those Adidas reps met the same fate. However, it’s a well-known fact that these multi-million to sometimes billion-dollar deals with schools, pay large sums of money and additional benefits including clothes and shoes to lure high-school, and sometimes even as young as junior high school athletes into major programs as incoming freshmen. Pitino, now at Iona after having to coach overseas for a year or two after losing his job in 2017, is a legendary coach in college basketball since the 1980’s, when he guided Providence to the Final Four, and later went on to win a National Title at Kentucky in the 1990’s. We’ve also seen similar situations with other coaches such as Kansas head coach Bill Self, LSU head man Will Wade, and Arizona’s Sean Miller, along with a whole host of assistant coaches from schools such as Auburn, USC, Connecticut and Miami, just to name a few, who have had their recruiting efforts and scholarship eligibility severely damaged by these arrests and allegations.
On the flip side of this, two of the biggest names in college basketball, seem to have mysteriously eluded the scrutiny of the recent FBI probe, which led to the federal indictments and eventually convictions, of several top NCAA hoops coaches, as well as some high-profile sneaker company representatives from companies like Nike, Adidas, and so on. Duke University’s legendary coach, Mike Krzyzewski is the all-time winningest coach in NCAA history, and had largely flown under the radar for any of these types of accusations, but has recently seen a lawsuit filed, in which one of his highest profile players, current New Orleans Pelicans F Zion Williamson, is being asked to admit that members of his family requested to, and did indeed receive benefits totaling somewhere in the neighborhood of $35K from one of these large shoe companies. This continues to be an ongoing litigation up until today.
The other school curiously escaping major scrutiny in all of this is the University of Kentucky, and their well-known championship winning (2012) head coach, John Calipari, who not only has been involved in major NCAA scandals in the past at both the University of Massachusetts (involving Marcus Camby and escorts) and at the University of Memphis (involving Derrick Rose and SAT score fraud). Calipari has been notoriously known for running a “one-and-done” program at UK for at least the last decade or so, in which there absolutely never seems to be any shortage of new talent coming in, year after year, despite these players jumping ship and heading to the NBA, leaving Calipari to have to completely rebuild his starting five from scratch literally on a year-to-year basis. Well, even the vaunted Kentucky program may be starting to wade into some murky waters, as the following information clearly illustrates.
One very high-profile attorney, Michael Avenatti, already having attained infamy by representing Stormy Daniels in her pursuit of the Donald Trump/Michael Cohen pornography & hush-money scandal, was also instrumental in handing out subpoenas that led to Nike being named as part of the FBI probe, but it remained unclear as to whether specific representatives were formally charged. But the bottom line here is not very perplexing - it’s obvious that athletes and/or their families are being paid large sums of money to attend universities and play for many different high profile programs. The real question is, in what way is this news? Some of the biggest names in college basketball have been linked to Avenatti's case.
“The filing on behalf of Avenatti also accused Nike officials of conspiring to pay at least $35,000 to Zion Williamson, $20,000 to Romeo Langford, and $15,000 to a player from Michigan who was not named because he is a minor. Additional documents to back up those claims were also included in Friday’s update to the motion along with several other documents showing communication between Nike officials.”
Before getting further into, and closing out this blog with the Kentucky situation, and its far-reaching influence and proportions to the future of the game and this scandal, I’d like to digress, just a bit here for a moment, and talk about the one other pathway to the pros that is being discussed, which is the possibility of playing in the NBA G-League right out of high school, a pathway in which young athletes can make real money, while gaining valuable playing experience in their formative years, that will allow them to be scouted and ultimately be good enough to play at the NBA Level. The following quotes illustrate some of what has been going on with regards to this :
“We’ll also see how this whole G League thing goes, as well,” Evans said. “Jalen Green did it — and if a couple of others do it — I wouldn’t be surprised if Kuminga is another guy that goes down that avenue.”
Green — the No. 2 player in the 2020 rankings — announced Thursday that he was skipping college to be a part of the G League’s revamped initiative for players straight out of high school. Fellow five-star recruit Isaiah Todd, who decommitted from Michigan this week, is expected to join him, and it’s likely a few other star recruits will be part of the league’s new program later this year.
The move is expected to be worth at least $500,000 for Green, who is likely to make more than that through endorsement deals that aren’t available to NCAA players.
Shams Charania of The Athletic and Stadium reported top prospect Jalen Green is expected to make approximately $500,000 in the new G League. ESPN reported Isaiah Todd, who was initially committed to Michigan before exploring this route, will make around $250,000 if he reaches the bonuses available to him.
Green and Todd are no longer the only recruits headed to the G League, either. Dan Woike of the Los Angeles Times reported on Tuesday former UCLA commit Daishen Nix will join them. Charania reported he is expected to make around $300,000.
According to (247Sports)' composite rankings, Nix was a 5-star prospect and the No. 1 point guard in the 2020 recruiting class.
"Playing in G-League is ... basically getting me ready for the NBA draft," Nix said. "It's just one step below the NBA.”
Looking at these quotes and situations with these top recruits, it is becoming evident that the G-League could be, and already is for some, an extremely viable option as an alternate path to the pros, and may be providing a system with many fewer dangers and pitfalls for many of these highly sought-after recruits. In response to the comments mentioned by Reggie Bush earlier, the G-League could be providing some of this much-needed professional structure and education, by actually having professional contracts being signed, and even having an endorsement structure in place for the higher-level athletes. And needless to say, by having an actual professional team and league that an athlete is playing for and is legally attached to, one doesn’t have to worry about the complexities of the NCAA and its never-ending game of shaming athletes by breaking rules that essentially function as boobie-traps that have been set ahead of time designed to make players fail, which in this case would include the use of university logos and namesakes that the NCAA knows the players will have to use. Especially in this COVID-19 pandemic, and all of the extra burdens, questions, and fears that are surrounding our American economy as a whole, the last thing we need is another petrie dish, not comprised of coronavirus cells this time, but of corporate sharks and snakes-in-the-grass looking to exploit the interests of naive athletes and their families for personal gains. Not to mention the lawsuits that could arise, which would likely be endless, so when it comes to the G-League option, I have to say that I am all for it.
The one possible caveat that the NCAA has working in its favor however, is the fact that the financial gains accrued from major sports such as college football and basketball, don’t solely make the executives rich, but they also provide the revenue and infrastructure that supports most of the lesser sports at each university, such as volleyball, track and field, and lacrosse, etc., just to name a few. And especially at the current moment, following the COVID-19 shutdowns of March Madness for both the men’s and women’s basketball tournament, one entire conference (the MAC) decided to halt all its sports programs for the next 4 years due to lack of funds, and we can expect many other conferences to do the same. Other individual universities, such as Brown University and several others are significantly cutting their schools’ sports programs as well, also due to how the billions of dollars lost from these sponsorship deals through Nike, Adidas, etc., as well as the lucrative network TV Contracts, typically keep most of these other smaller sports afloat. Undoubtedly, the damage done will be staggering, not only now, but for some time to come, and can only worsen if the football season doesn’t go on as planned, and much more revenue is lost. (ESPN, SC, 5/12/20) All of this could render the G-League as the ONLY viable option for all students who are not quite ready, or good enough to make it into the NBA, assuming of course, that those leagues will be able to play future seasons themselves.
But getting back to Calipari and UK, the battle for top recruits rages on. Adidas has been implicated along with Nike, with two of their leading officials having been found guilty in the FBI probe, while Nike officials have actually avoided any formal charges, despite federal subpoenas being handed out via Avenatti’s firm. A Kentucky assistant alleged by way of text messages that “Nike was funneling payments to high school players through at least ten different EYBL coaches.” (ibid) According to the motion, the messages sent in the early morning hours of July 6, 2017, are communications between DeBose, the head of Nike’s EYBL travel circuit, and the UK assistant, whose name appears in the messages as “KP.” This is the only time Kentucky was mentioned in Avenatti’s court filing, and it was determined that the UK coach in question (KP, or Kenny Payne) didn’t have prior knowledge or involvement in the supposed plan to pay recruits. But Payne, who has been on John Calipari’s coaching staff at Kentucky since 2010, had little to say to DeBose’s response, which was “a list of about 10 Nike league coaches who he says “are helping families to the total of about ($200,000) annually.”
I had to deliver all of this information to you, almost verbatim, because I really have wondered how for so long, the University of Kentucky basketball program, under coach John Calipari, has run a virtual factory of high-level recruits, many of whom have ultimately turned into NBA Superstars, and has benefitted as much as anyone from the NCAA-FBI investigation, by consistently landing a top 5 recruiting class almost every year, including 2020. (https://n.rivals.com/) Some have claimed that the main reason for this is that Calipari has been the best at maintaining his NBA connections, and keeping them current, so that the players have an easy pathway into the pros. (https://www.aseaofblue.com/2010/4/21/1434284/kentucky-basketball-the-calipari) But some of the data suggests otherwise, and Calipari has at times been characterized as a greedy profiteer, who cares little about his student athletes, and uses them as a pipeline to both his own, and ultimately the athletes’ greater glory. A player like Alex Poythress, a few years back for instance, was one of these athletes that fell through the cracks due to an injury, and despite his greatest efforts, was never able to recover sufficiently, and was in turn left by the wayside in this system of risk, that doesn’t cater to the faint of heart. Poythress, who was largely abandoned by Calipari, and forced to look for work overseas, certainly wasn’t the first of these players, and undoubtedly won’t be the last at UK who suffers this fate. (https://deadspin.com/we-need-to-talk-about-how-we-talk-about-john-calipari-1693992042)
Getting back to Avenatti, whose questionable tactics have been characterized as a “shakedown,” as he and his legal team were, “charged with extortion, and federal investigators accused Avenatti, despite his trying to claim that he was only trying to set up a meeting with his client, Gary Franklin, a Nike-affiliated AAU coach. Franklin claims that he was used by Nike grassroots officials to make payments to associates from some of his highest-profile players, and threatening to release evidence against the company unless Nike agreed to a payment of more than $20 million.” (ibid) Avenatti disputed these charges, and has sought to prove that he was only trying to arrange a settlement for, which included DeAndre Ayton, Bol Bol and Brandon McCoy, while they were still in high school. Another email the documents referred to from July 2016 spoke of a Mel McDonald, who was also connected to the recruitments of Ayton and Bol, showing expenses that appear to be related to Ayton’s recruitment. One of those expenses is dated Dec. 12 and refers to “5k in Kentucky (3 cells 2k cash).” (ibid) (https://www.ajc.com/sports/kentucky-has-been-one-basketball-scandal-biggest-winners/x0Z70JR6SuS6LNFHcXAqNJ/)
One last bit of shadiness before we close this whole thing out. In the afore-mentioned HBO documentary, The Scheme, the issues involved not only the players such as the ones mentioned above, the main recruiter Christian Dawkins, and Merl Code (a main Adidas rep), but it also includes a failed movie mogul, turned small-time criminal, turned informant, in Marty Glazer, and 2 FBI investigators, Jeff D’Angelo + another woman , who essentially trapped a young Dawkins into accepting payments and investment money to match certain players with certain teams. Of course they were all later charged and found guilty, and most did some prison time, even though the convictions the feds did get, were far fewer than they had hoped for, and the defendants all fought the FBI’s accusations in this, punching numerous holes in the corruption they attempted to expose. Interestingly enough, the two investors fronting Dawkins and his associates the money were themselves undercover FBI agents, who later disappeared off the face of the earth completely, never to be seen or heard from again. Even the FBI claims it doesn’t know the whereabouts of its own agents, which casts yet another shadow of doubt on their entire probe and operation. The coaches involved, such as Wade, Miller, and Pitino, were painted in a very negative light though, especially through conversations taken off of wire-tapped phone calls often-times with Dawkins, in which they clearly incriminate themselves. Several assistant coaches, such as USC’s Tony Bland, Auburn’s Chuck Person, and Arizona’s Emmanuel “Book” Richardson were also left holding their tongues so-to-speak, and many of the afore-mentioned parties also spent large amounts of money on gambling and nights out on the town (usually in Las Vegas), following these FBI-sponsored meetings intended to lure recruits into Dawkins’ business.
In the end, this all adds up to a very dirty game that is being played; one that as Reggie Bush and others have predicted, could become very ugly, and claim many teenage victims before it’s all said and done. As for the players/student-athletes themselves, they will absolutely need to be on high-alert at all times to the dangers of exploitation, entrapment, and extortion, all while having to adhere to the already abundant and stringent NCAA bylaws which are not yet even involving player compensation. This could become like a new version of the famous gangster film, Scarface, where everybody, including players, agents, coaches, sneaker reps, and even the NCAA big-whigs themselves may be constantly turning and looking over one shoulder or the other to see who is lurking in the distant shadows. When UK assistant coach Kenny Payne exclaims,“Wow, Can it come back ’n hurt you?” and DeBose responds, "Not really, just have to do it cleanly and with a process. Lynn and Nico (2 high-up Nike officials) don’t want to know the intimate details to cover their asses. So it’s a damn risk… but I’m used to it now.” KP comes back and replies to DeBose, “Watch your back bro,” and that’s exactly what each of these top recruits and other prominent players in this game will have to do on a daily basis. I hope they all remember to bring their wet suits.