In the magical world of the Independent Accountability Resolution Panel — the group of high-priced lawyers hired by the NCAA to adjudicate the infractions cases stemming from the 2017 FBI investigation into college basketball — Adidas wasn’t paying teenage basketball players to go to Louisville for the benefit of Louisville or Rick Pitino.
“It was our interpretation,” said David Benck, who chaired the panel, “that they were primarily motivated by brand promotion and they were trying to take steps to promote their brand, not to promote the institution.”
OK, now pause for a moment. Is your jaw on the floor yet? Have you stopped laughing?
Five years and one month since the FBI arrested 10 people, including assistant coaches and Adidas executives, for corruption and proclaimed “We have your playbook,” a great comedy is unfolding right before our eyes.
And the joke, as usual, is on the NCAA.
With Thursday’s ruling, Louisville is now off the hook for Adidas arranging a $100,000 payment to deliver recruit Brian Bowen. The penalties prescribed to the school — probation, and a few minor recruiting restrictions — are little more than a feathery wrist slap. Though two former assistants got hit with show-cause penalties, Pitino (now at Iona) was pretty much exonerated.
For Louisville, a five-year saga is now over. It’s also likely good news for Kansas, whose five Level 1 charges by the NCAA enforcement staff largely rest on the theory that Adidas was a booster operating for the benefit of Kansas. If the same logic applies — that Adidas was just in it to promote shoes, not help its key business partners win basketball games by delivering players — the Jayhawks are probably going to skate as well.
Maybe there’s some Machiavellian justice in how all this played out. Louisville is now on its second coach since Pitino’s firing. A disruptive cloud of uncertainty has hung over the program for five seasons, with just one NCAA tournament appearance since the FBI raid. Whatever the result, it was long past time to put a bow on the case and allow everyone to move forward.
And in the even wider lens of this case, the NCAA has evolved to a place over the last five years where a shoe company signing a recruit to a deal that would (wink, wink) influence them to attend one of their partner schools is now basically allowed through name, image and likeness.
But it’s important to remember a couple of things here: A handful of folks actually went to jail for this. A few coaches lost their careers and faced dire financial circumstances due to legal fees. Even one school that was just tangentially involved, Oklahoma State, served a postseason ban.
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How do you think they feel today? How should they feel, knowing that a committee empowered by the NCAA to mete out accountability — it’s right in the name, after all — has had years to work on these cases only to rule that this was all overblown.
Maybe it was. But the IARP’s conclusion Thursday that this wasn’t about the school but rather rogue Adidas just trying to get the 3-Stripes logo out there is the most ironic way possible for this five-year journey to end. From the NCAA’s standpoint, it is arguably the biggest enforcement failure in the history of the organization.
In the immediate wake of the FBI raids, the mood throughout college basketball was to use the moment as an opportunity to dig deep on corruption. What had been caught on those wiretaps was the kind of under-the-table business that coaches said had been going on forever in college basketball recruiting, and it was finally time to root it out.
So the NCAA convened a “Commission on College Basketball” led by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. It included dignitaries of the sport like Grant Hill and David Robinson, former and current coaches and administrators, school presidents and attorneys. The very first item in its mission statement was to focus on how players, coaches and schools interact with shoe companies “to establish an environment where they can support programs in a transparent way but not become an inappropriate or distorting influence on the game, recruits or their families.”
In April 2018, Rice proclaimed, “We need to put the college back in college basketball” and unveiled several reforms attempting to lessen the influence of shoe companies on recruiting. They also recommended creating the IARP as a so-called “off-ramp” for these cases from the regular peer-led infractions process. It was an interesting experiment in the sense that the IARP would be made up of attorneys who were not directly affiliated with college sports, which Benck, who is general counsel of Hibbett Sports in his regular job, characterized Thursday as a positive.
“We didn’t bring any biases to this hearing,” he said. “We brought professionalism to it.”
But it’s questionable whether they brought much knowledge about how college sports operate.
People can have different interpretations of what the evidence says, and Benck said there was “insufficient and grossly underwhelming information to indicate there was knowledge (by Louisville or Pitino) that this was taking place.”
So be it.
But it insults the intelligence of everyone who has ever worked in or spent significant time around college basketball to suggest that Adidas was just “motivated by brand promotion.”
Perhaps that is the best the IARP could come up with given the evidence it had. It is also not how any of this actually works.
“It’s illogical,” said Sonny Vaccaro, who was the first to sign college coaches to shoe deals in the 1970s when he worked at Nike.
Back then, Vaccaro targeted the likes of John Thompson and Jerry Tarkanian because they were the big-deal coaches whose teams were playing in Final Fours. Through that partnership and the countless relationships with players that resulted from it, Nike gained a foothold in the sport.
But without the ability to ensure the best players end up on those teams, it’s not much of a marketing plan. That’s why shoe companies are constantly fighting each other at the grassroots level to sponsor the teams those teenagers play for — and why there’s a vested interest in which college they end up attending.
This is obvious in a series of text messages between Self and Adidas consultant T.J. Gassnola after Kansas re-upped its deal with the company when Self said he had to “get a couple real guys.”
Gassnola replied: “In my mind, it’s KU, bill self. Everyone else fall into line. Too (expletive) bad. That’s what’s right for Adidas basketball. And I know I am RIGHT. The more you win, have lottery pics (sic) and you happy. That’s how it should work in my mind.”
“That’s how ur (sic) works. At UNC and Duke,” Self texted back.
Whether you want to call that marketing or a serious NCAA violation, that’s how college basketball works. That’s real.
It seems unlikely, though, that the IARP is going to see it the same way. Again, these are lawyers who are used to working in the American justice system. Their report on Louisville pretty much shreds the way the NCAA prosecuted the case, raising the evidentiary bar much higher than people working in college sports have been used to.
The IARP, for what it’s worth, is going to be dismantled as soon as the FBI cases are cleared off the docket. The amount of money the NCAA has spent — likely in the millions of dollars — has been a losing investment with cases going on for years and not much accountability to show for it.
The Rice Commission and the IARP did not, in fact, clean up college basketball. And after all of that, the NCAA is suddenly back where it began.
Story Credit: usatoday.com