I’m sure several of my loyal readers have been anticipating this post. So, finally, here are some disjointed thoughts on college hoops, shoe companies, and the FBI.
It’s been a crazy ass few weeks for college basketball in general, and KU basketball in particular. The first of several trials that resulted from the FBI investigation into shoe companies and agents allegedly defrauding universities featured KU at the center.
When the trial began, I was hoping that nothing worse that what we already knew about KU’s ties to the case would come out. As the trial played out, my reaction went along a timeline that is something like this:
Crap, holy crap, shit, holy shit, HOLY FREAKING SHIT.
In short, it was not a good week for KU hoops.
But as the trial wrapped up, I think things improved for KU. At least from the NCAA perspective, which really is the only one that matters.
Let’s get this out of the way first. I don’t believe Bill Self when he says he was unaware that Adidas was paying kids to go to KU.
I also don’t believe Sean Miller. Or Roy Williams. Or Coach K. Or Rick Pitino. Or Tom Izzo. Or (fill in every other D1 coach here) when they make the same assertions.
Each of these coaches may have very different relationships with the “dirty” side of recruiting. But I don’t think anyone can operate at the highest level of the game, where they are recruiting the top players against the top programs each year, and not have an idea that players they sign may have received cash from the shoe company that sponsors their school.
I think there may be some coaches on that list, and across college hoops as a whole, who stick their heads in the sand and decide to ignore it. If it benefits them, great. They’re just not going to get involved directly.
I think most of the best programs out there have someone aside from the head coach whose job it is to coordinate efforts so that recruits get paid while the head man keeps his hands clean. And each one of those head coaches has a carefully prepared defensive strategy that is several levels deep so that there can always be an explanation away if the dots start connecting too close to them.
See Bill Self’s statement last week, which was absolutely perfect for heading off an NCAA inquiry. He pointed out that everyone knows that shoe companies have been spreading money around grassroots hoops for years. That he’s recruited Adidas kids who signed with non-Adidas programs. That he’s signed kids who never wore Adidas until they got to KU. That he, and his staff, have never directed Adidas to spread out cash on their behalf.
He said all the things he had to say to begin laying out his defense. How much of it is true, and to what extent, I have no idea.
It helps KU that former Adidas consultant T.J. Gassnola had already plead guilty to the charges facing him, and then testified that the money he paid to Billy Preston’s mom and offered to Silvio De Sousa’s guardian came without KU’s knowledge. As the beneficiary of a plea deal, he risks a lengthy prison sentence if he testifies falsely.
It helps KU that Gassnola testified that he helped Billy Preston’s mom hide the payments from KU, and coached her on how to guide Billy through not disclosing the money to KU.
As writer Dan Wetzel pointed out during the trial, the transcript of KU assistant Kurtis Townsend discussing what it would take to sign Zion Williamson could end up not hurting KU either. Why? Because Williamson signed with Duke. And, as Wetzel wrote, are we really supposed to believe that Zion’s dad was asking for cash, a home, and employment and then signed with Duke for nothing? Or that the NCAA would ever look into anything Duke did? Wetzel called Duke KU’s get out of jail free card.
I’m not naive enough to think kids that go to KU – or any of the other top basketball schools in the country – aren’t getting more than tuition, room and board, and their monthly stipend. I don’t know whether the $90K Billy Preston’s mom got is routine or an aberration.
The thing I continue to think is very strange, however, is that KU never let Preston play, and even worked with the NCAA for three months to get him eligible. Do they do that if they were helping the kid get paid? If they facilitated the payments, don’t they either play him and hope no one ever finds out or just cut him loose if they think the NCAA is going to connect payments directly to the KU staff? Why do they take Cliff Alexander off the court in February of his freshman year if they had helped his family get paid? Why do they work to get De Sousa eligible mid-season if they knew Adidas had helped him repay Under Armour for the cash they gave his guardian to sign with Maryland?
It makes no sense to me why they would work directly with the NCAA if they had a hand in those kids getting cash. I don’t think Bill Self is that brazen. And I believe that will be enough to keep KU out of NCAA trouble.
So what happens from here?
Assuming more does not come out, I think the most likely scenario is that De Sousa will be the sacrificial lamb and never play for KU again. The NCAA will say it was because he got money from UA, rendering him ineligible. They will buy Gassnola’s statement that he never actually paid De Sousa’s guardian. And then the NCAA will either believe Gassnola’s testimony that Self and KU were unaware of his payments to Preston’s mom, or they will just refuse to look into it, saying that the US government proved in court that KU was defrauded by Adidas and there is no need to investigate.
I say that because I’d bet Wetzel was right: I don’t think the NCAA wants a thing to do with digging into this, because once the digging starts everyone is going to get dirty. The NCAA would love it if the defendants in the next set of trials all plead guilty and there is no more public airing of wiretaps that show college coaches discussing payments for players. They don’t want to put more light on the deals like Josh Jackson and Marvin Bagley’s parents got, which are technically according to the rules, but remain deeply troublesome ethically. They have zero interest in penalizing likely every top program in the game, pissing off all those coaches and administrators and fans, placing question on past tournament results, and threatening future tournament ratings by putting a swath of elite schools on probation.
I think the NCAA wants to sit back and wait for the NBA to change the one-and-done rule and then claim that will clean up the game.
Which is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. Does anyone honestly believe that if Williamson, Bagley, Jackson, etc. can go straight to the NBA that will change recruiting? Coaches still want to, and need to, win. Even if the top 20 recruits all go pro each each, coaches will still fight like mad to sign the next 20 who can help them win. Those kids may not get as much money as the lottery picks, but you can be sure someone is going to shoot some cash their way to make their college decisions easier.
My biggest wish out of all of this is that some big time coach goes rogue. I want Self, or Miller, or Pitino, or someone else deeply involved, to burn bridges and start telling tales. I want one of them to stand up in front of the media and say this:
There have been a lot of questions about our recruiting practices and our relationship with shoe companies. Here’s the deal: we’ve paid every recruit we’ve signed since I’ve been here. We did it because if we didn’t, we’d never sign those kids, and then we’d never win any games and my athletic director and I would have been fired a decade ago.
Yeah, we paid Player X $50K to come here. That’s because Kentucky was offering him $40K. We babysat Player Y for three years, got him to a good prep school where all he had to do was ball and travel and they would make sure he was eligible. We moved his mom so she could be close to him. We had a car and a $75K check ready for him the day he signed. Then fucking Nike showed up with a check for $100K and a condo for his dad and he signed with Duke.
Wouldn’t that be awesome! I mean, it would tear the sport apart, but it would be a majestic meltdown.