NCAA Judge Goes Easy on Convicts, Hard on College Basketball

(Bloomberg) -- A federal judge sent three men caught in a federal probe of college basketball kickbacks to prison but gave them relatively lenient sentences for a striking reason: Corruption, he implied, is common in the sport.

Two weeks before the annual college basketball tournament known as March Madness, Judge Lewis Kaplan sentenced former Adidas AG executive James Gatto to nine months, while Merl Code, a consultant with ties to Adidas, and agent Christian Dawkins each got six.

The three acted as middlemen in a network of sneaker executives and assistant coaches funneling money to recruits and their families, a scheme targeted in a sweeping, two-year investigation of National Collegiate Athletic Association basketball.

NCAA Judge Goes Easy on Convicts, Hard on College Basketball

“To call him greedy would be wrong -- that would be an exaggeration,” Kaplan said of Dawkins. “These are not, like, you know, insider traders who are stealing millions of dollars.”

Gatto had faced 46 to 57 months in prison under federal sentencing guidelines, while Code and Dawkins each faced 30 to 37 months. In imposing the lighter sentences, Kaplan said that the men had led “good and productive lives” and “learned their lesson.”

And, he added, similar acts had been committed in college basketball “with some frequency.”

Still, he said, prison time was needed to serve up a “great big warning light to the basketball world” and to “deter others and make them think twice before engaging in this type of conduct.”

Gatto, Code and Dawkins were among 10 people charged in September 2017 with participating in schemes to direct top recruits to sign with powerhouse schools and steer them toward clothing endorsements and deals with financial advisers.

Critics of the NCAA have seized on the arrests as proof that the body’s policy against paying athletes, except with scholarships, is a spur to corruption. The scandal rocked the world of college basketball and led to the ousting of Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino from the University of Louisville.

Kaplan cited what he called a “pretty unforgettable moment” during the trial when Code and Dawkins were heard on a wiretap saying that Pitino “knows something” but doesn’t “know everything.”

“They were making sure they were protecting Rick Pitino,” Kaplan said. “These men knew what they were doing. They knew it was wrong and they were covering it up.”

Pitino has denied any wrongdoing.

The three were convicted of conspiring to defraud universities by routing payments to the families of recruits and concealing those payments from the schools. Meeting in parking lots and hotel rooms, they hustled cash to family members of hot prospects, who in turn joined college programs sponsored by Adidas, prosecutors told a jury.

Code and Dawkins also face a June trial on charges they conspired to direct bribes to former Auburn University assistant coach Chuck Person, a onetime National Basketball Association star, to send players to a financial adviser and business manager.

The three, who remain free pending their appeal, argued they were just trying to give the players’ families a financial boost and help the colleges secure illustrious recruits, while connecting Adidas with the pro basketball stars of tomorrow.

Five of those charged in the scandal have pleaded guilty: financial adviser Munish Sood, former Adidas consultant Thomas “T.J.” Gassnola, ex-University of Southern California assistant coach Tony Bland, former Oklahoma State University assistant coach Lamont Evans, and Emanuel “Book” Richardson, a one-time University of Arizona assistant coach.

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