Analysis: Understanding the legal case building against the college basketball world

Allen Fieldhouse is shown in this Journal-World file photo.

Monday was a day of confusion around the University of Kansas basketball program.

An Associated Press article reported that KU was one of 28 universities that acknowledged it had launched an “internal review” of its recruiting practices following the bombshell announcement last month that federal prosecutors had found evidence of bribery and other illegal schemes related to college basketball recruiting.

Then, later on Monday, a KU Athletics Department spokesman said KU hadn’t launched an internal review of its recruiting practices, but rather was just monitoring the national situation.

Then, yet even later on Monday, KU Athletic Director Sheahon Zenger said KU does — or at least soon will — have an internal review underway, but that is because the NCAA is mandating all Division I basketball programs to conduct such a review.

Review? No review? The better question, it seems, is why wouldn’t KU have an internal review underway?

Before you Rock Chalk chanters come after me with a bucket of rocks, let me explain. None of this is to presuppose that Kansas coaches are guilty of some of the allegations made against coaches at other schools.

Instead, the need for an internal review highlights the fact that KU still could receive significant damage even if none of its coaches or employees did anything illegal. To understand how, though, you need to understand the case federal prosecutors are attempting to make against the college basketball world.

Here’s a look at what college basketball fans may want to know about the legal case federal officials are building against college basketball.

What’s actually illegal here? You don’t have to dig very deep into the internet to find respected news outlets questioning what crime has been committed if college players are receiving money to attend a particular school. After all, the money allegedly isn’t coming from the schools or public coffers, but rather is coming from a private company. Yes, it certainly would be a violation of NCAA rules against paying student athletes, but that is an NCAA rule violation, not a crime.

“Last month, Adidas agreed to pay $160 million over 10 years for the University of Louisville to wear its apparel,” columnist Joe Nocera wrote for Bloomberg late last month. “That’s called a ‘deal.’ But if the company then pays a high school athlete to attend the school, that’s called a bribe?”

I’ve heard that rationale before, but the feds aren’t buying any of it. The federal complaint against Adidas executive James Gatto and others spells out the law violation clearly. It goes like this: 1. The Adidas representative or his intermediaries give money to a college basketball recruit. 2. The recruit agrees to go to the school of the Adidas rep’s choosing, which of course is a school that has a contract with Adidas. 3. The recruit signs a document called a “Student-Athlete Statement,” in order to get his scholarship money from the university.

Step 3 is where things get illegal, the feds say. The student-athlete is signing a document saying that he complies with the amateur status of the NCAA, meaning no one has paid him to play basketball at this school. But that is not true. He is lying to get tens of thousands of dollars in scholarship money. The Adidas rep and his agents are on the hook because they allegedly paid an individual to conduct an illegal act.

Notice in this scenario, a basketball coach hasn’t done anything. Granted, the NCAA is alleging that there are cases where basketball coaches act as intermediaries and help direct these payments. But, theoretically, a shoe company doesn’t need direction from a basketball coach to pay a kid to sign with the coach’s basketball program.

If such a situation exists where Adidas has paid a basketball player to go to Kansas — without the knowledge of the KU coaching staff — it seems like KU would want to know that sooner rather than later. There are plenty of questions an internal review could seek to answer about relationships involving past recruits and their families.

Isn’t this a victimless crime? Not hardly, the feds say. The complaint spells out that the victims in these crimes are the universities. If the universities have unknowingly allowed an ineligible student-athlete to play, the university could face significant penalties. Forfeited games. In KU’s case, that would mean bye-bye conference winning streak. Heaven forbid, if a violation dated back to 2008, the National Championship could be revoked. If banned from the postseason, there goes KU’s record streak of consecutive NCAA tournament appearances. Plus, there is another victim here. Remember, the purpose of college athletics is to provide an education to a student-athlete. KU has a limited number of student-athlete scholarships to give. If someone who is ineligible receives one of those scholarships, then that means someone who was eligible to receive one is being deprived of that opportunity. KU is a public institution. If it has been the victim of a crime, wouldn’t it want to know?

Should KU be worried? Unless you are a federal investigator, you don’t know the answer to that question. But when you read the complaint, there are details that would make a fan nervous. This recorded conversation from defendant Merl Code, another Adidas executive, stands out to me: “You guys are being introduced to … how stuff happens with kids getting into particular schools, and so this is kind of one of those instances where we need to step up and help one of our flagship schools, you know, secure a five-star caliber kid.” Flagship school. The school being discussed in this instance likely is the University of Louisville. But KU, prior to this scandal breaking, described itself in those very terms. KU is a flagship school for the Adidas brand. By itself, it doesn’t mean anything. But it doesn’t provide any comfort.

Speaking of uncomfortable, there is one other statement in the legal document that surely has some schools worried. It is easy to overlook because it is almost boilerplate language. It comes from the FBI’s special agent on the case: “Because this affidavit is being submitted for the limited purpose of establishing probable cause, it does not include all of the facts that I have learned during the course of the investigation.”