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Justice Department’s college basketball probe: How we got here and what might be next

FILE - In this March 14, 2012, file photo, a player runs across the NCAA logo during practice in Pittsburgh before an NCAA tournament college basketball game. What some call the sleezy side of college basketball recruiting will be on display at a criminal trial starting Monday, Oct. 1, 2018, in New York. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic, File) ORG XMIT: NY305 (Keith Srakocic / AP)
FILE - In this March 14, 2012, file photo, a player runs across the NCAA logo during practice in Pittsburgh before an NCAA tournament college basketball game. What some call the sleezy side of college basketball recruiting will be on display at a criminal trial starting Monday, Oct. 1, 2018, in New York. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic, File) ORG XMIT: NY305 (Keith Srakocic / AP)
By Will Hobson Washington Post

On Wednesday – nearly 13 months to the day after the Justice Department announced the arrests of 10 men, including four assistant coaches, as part of an ongoing investigation of corruption in college basketball – the first trial to stem from the probe resulted in a victory for federal prosecutors and the FBI. A jury in New York found two Adidas officials and an aspiring NBA agent guilty of several fraud charges for brokering secret payments to the families of recruits, to secure their commitments to play at Louisville, Kansas and North Carolina State, all Adidas-sponsored teams.

With two more trials scheduled for next spring, and an apparent cache of evidence under seal that likely implicates more coaches, players and schools as potentially breaking NCAA rules, the investigation remains the subject of trepidation and uncertainty throughout college basketball. Here are a few basic questions and answers about the investigation and its potential impact on college basketball, based on a review of the evidence unveiled so far via court proceedings and the trial, and interviews with those familiar with the case.

Why again is the Justice Department investigating this?

In 2014, Marty Blazer, a Pittsburgh financial advisor to several lesser-known NFL players, was facing criminal charges for using his clients’ money without their permission (in part, to finance “A Resurrection,” a low-budget horror film starring Michael Clarke Duncan and Mischa Barton). To avoid prison, Blazer decided to become a government informant, and introduced FBI agents to some of his business associates who paid the families of top college athletes in the hopes of retaining them as clients if they played professionally.

Under the direction of the FBI, Blazer eventually connected with Christian Dawkins, then a runner – or recruiter – for ASM, a sports agency that specialized in NBA players. Dawkins wanted to start his own sports agency, and Blazer and two undercover FBI agents posed as investors, providing seed money as Dawkins traveled the country, trying to drum up business.

Dawkins used two main tactics to try to land future clients, according to prosecutors and FBI agents: He arranged payments for their families – in some cases brokering deals with Adidas – and he also arranged payments for college coaches, who agreed to steer players his way.

How did Adidas get involved?

Dawkins had worked for years at ASM, whose president, Andy Miller, had strong influence and connections at Adidas which, like rivals Nike and Under Armour, operates travel youth leagues and sponsors major colleges, in the hopes of attracting the next generation of NBA stars for endorsement deals.

When the FBI wiretapped his phone last June, Dawkins had just brokered a deal to get Adidas to agree to pay the father of one recruit $100,000 to secure his son’s commitment to Louisville, one of the shoe company’s top sponsored college teams. The investigation led federal agents to T.J. Gassnola, a longtime Adidas consultant who became a cooperating witness and admitted to arranging similar payments to steer top recruits to Kansas and North Carolina State.

Will the investigation expand to implicate more schools, coaches, and shoe companies?

In the first few months after this investigation went public last September, the FBI and federal prosecutors in New York made it clear they had interest in expanding this investigation considerably. They convened a grand jury and sent subpoenas to Nike-sponsored Arizona, Under Armour-sponsored Maryland, and Nike’s corporate offices in Oregon.

But then the investigation had a few setbacks. After initially claiming, in court documents, that a Louisville coach later identified as Rick Pitino was involved in arranging payments for a recruit, prosecutors apparently decided they lacked the evidence to support that claim, and didn’t bring charges against Pitino, who lost his job shortly after the arrests and maintains he had no knowledge of the illicit recruiting help he was getting from Adidas.

Additionally, an entire pay-for-play scheme involving Miami, and criminal charges against a youth coach in Florida, collapsed when prosecutors and FBI agents realized wiretapped conversations they had interpreted literally had actually been bluster. The youth coach had been bluffing to Adidas officials about his influence over the star recruit, according to text messages and conversations described during the trial, and never intended to give any money to the player or his family.

These setbacks are worth considering when speculating on the answer to the broader question of whether federal authorities are still interested in widening their case and making more arrests at other schools and other shoe companies.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of New York, which is overseeing this investigation, will not discuss publicly where the probe is headed. Based on conversation with those familiar with this case and others like it, the main theories fall into two categories:

1. Emboldened by this week’s result – which validated the disputed legal argument that schools are the victims of fraud when people secretly pay top college athletes and their families – prosecutors and the FBI will look to make more arrests. Wednesday’s verdicts create incentive for those facing trial next year – which include former assistant coaches at Arizona, Oklahoma State, Southern California and Auburn – to consider taking a plea deal, and providing incriminating information about others.

2. After a three-plus year investigation, the prosecutors are ready to move on. Rather than bring more charges, they’ll just focus on securing convictions in the remaining cases, essentially sending a threatening message to others involved in similar dealings involving college athletes across the country, in case another FBI or U.S. Attorney’s Office develops an interest in this type of investigation.

When will we know if this investigation is going to get bigger?

This is a difficult, because with rare exceptions (see Clinton, Hillary and emails) the Justice Department generally doesn’t publicly disclose when it has finished investigating something.

The NCAA may provide a bit of a public indication. According to people with knowledge of discussions between the NCAA and federal authorities, the NCAA is holding off until it gets a “green light” of sorts that its work won’t interfere with ongoing investigations and trials. So when we start hearing about the NCAA trying to get answers from Kansas coach Bill Self about his text messages with Adidas consultant Gassnola, for example, it’s probably a sign that the federal investigation has come to an end.

What will happen to all that evidence the FBI collected?

Based on news reports and interviews with people familiar with the case, the federal authorities apparently have evidence suggesting NCAA violations by other coaches and schools not yet implicated. Some of this came out during this first trial, such as the offers the father of one former Louisville recruit described receiving from assistant coaches at Oklahoma State, Creighton, Texas and Arizona, or the wiretapped call described by a lawyer in which an Adidas consultant apparently told a Kansas coach that top recruit Zion Williamson, who eventually committed to Duke, or his stepfather was asking for money.

It’s worth noting here that much of this evidence is secondhand or hearsay, and would require corroboration. Duke has denied any wrongdoing by Williamson and his stepfather, and it’s entirely possible the Adidas consultant was bluffing.

Still, NCAA enforcement officials undoubtedly would like to know about the other evidence under seal, to inform where they should be launching new investigations. It remains unclear if they’ll ever get to access that underlying evidence, however.

As a rule, the FBI and federal prosecutors investigate crimes, use the evidence they need to secure convictions, and then the rest remains under seal. There is one rarely used path, however, for the Justice Department to make what it has found public: through a public report, similar to what a state grand jury in Pennsylvania did earlier this year, with its investigation of the cover-up of sex abuse in Catholic churches there, involving crimes in which statutes of limitation had expired, or perpetrators had died.

Absent a public report, however, the only other likely avenue for public release of this evidence is through the two remaining trials, set for February and April of next year.

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