University of Kansas

As Nike trial looms, we’re on doorstep of the next chapter in college hoops scandal

We will begin with the optimistic view of the next trial set to rock college basketball, but maybe we should first pause to define optimism. Because there are no purely positive outcomes left. The sport has been stained in a new way. That’s not coming back.

My desire all along has been for the most dishonest structure in any major American sport to catch some religion. For far too long the NCAA has pushed fiction and made billions because of a willing naiveté from fans, media, and customers.

The cracks began to appear through last year’s Adidas trial in New York. An FBI investigation essentially found what everyone in the sport has known forever: Top basketball talents, prohibited by rule from being paid even a fraction of their value by schools, are often bought and influenced by such third parties as shoe companies, agents and financial advisors.

The trial kick-started some NCAA investigations, including at Kansas.

“That’s the NCAA doing what they have to do,” said one longtime Division I coach. “Adidas came first and they should all be looked into. But now when Nike’s on trial, what is the NCAA willing to do when they find out everybody’s doing the same thing? How do you go after everybody?”

So, the optimistic outcome here — my optimistic outcome, anyway — is that enough evidence shows enough programs and enough shoe companies and enough agents violating enough antiquated rules that the NCAA is publicly pressured into modernizing the system into something more sustainable and honest.

I don’t know exactly what that is, but possibilities abound. Let athletes profit off their likeness, even if schools (fairly, I would argue) get a cut. Or instead of salaries, let athletes “earn” money based on talent and academic progress. The cash can be accessed after college.

Or stop the demonizing of agents and shoe companies and recognize them for what they truly are: integral parts of the ecosystem with a vested financial and professional interest in prospects turning into successful pros.

Let those prospects take no-risk loans — paid off upon entering the NBA, or forgiven if a pro career doesn’t take. That would transfer the risk from teenagers to adults, and allow those who are already working in this space to more freely and honestly invest in legitimate businesses.

Anyway. That’s the optimistic view.

Here’s the pessimism:

“There’s no proof,” the same coach said. “As much as you and I and anyone else might know this stuff happens there’s no definitive proof with anything on Adidas and there won’t be definitive proof that Nike did anything. I’m telling you right now: Nike is much smarter than Adidas, so there won’t be even as much proof on them as there was on Adidas.”

In other words: it’s not what you think, or even what you might know. It’s what you can prove, and a notable example exists in the most potentially explosive bit from the Adidas trial.

This is the moment that’s been shorthanded to the Zion wire tap. It was a conversation between longtime Kansas assistant coach Kurtis Townsend and then-Adidas consultant Merl Code, who told Townsend that Zion Williamson’s father was looking for a job, money, and housing.

Townsend’s response: “I’ve got to just try to work and figure out a way. Because if that’s what it takes to get him for 10 months, we’re going to have to do it some way.”

Now, never mind that this was in a transcript read by the defense but not approved as admissible evidence. And never mind that the sound bite proves nothing — there is no exchange of money, no paycheck stubs from a phony job, no evidence that Townsend attempted to do anything.

There is not even proof that Code — who was sentenced to six months on conspiracy and fraud charges — was telling the truth. He could have made up the claim, an effort to get money for himself or to ensure that Williamson’s family would be indebted. Heck, could’ve been both.

Focus instead on the fact that Williamson went to Duke. 247 Sports’ projection had Clemson as an 87 percent favorite to land Williamson, with Kentucky and South Carolina also as finalists. KU wasn’t there, so if Code’s demand was even vaguely true, then Duke “figured out a way.”

So what does the NCAA do with all of that?

Particularly if it’s true that Nike is more careful of how it does things — a contract for “consulting” work, for instance, instead of street agents taking payments from Adidas and skimming off the top.

That’s the frustrating part for those of us who’d like to see real change in the sport. One interesting theory that’s emerged from several coaches since the Adidas trial: there is more money being exchanged than ever but fewer instances of schools doing it.

Shoe companies pay AAU coaches, who use that money to run teams. It’s all an unapologetic guise to buy the influence of top talent — everything from travel expenses to direct payments.

Those AAU coaches, shoe companies, and agents then have more influence on college choices.

So by the time a college coach sees a top prospect he doesn’t need to pay anything because someone else already has. They can’t buy players because they’re already bought.

In a better world, one where the NCAA’s self-interest in protecting profits didn’t conspire with the general public’s active desire to keep with the status quo, we’d already have enough to make major changes.

We’d see a system that pushed out slimy middleman street agents to turn a black market white, keeping money in the hands of those who generate interest or otherwise provide a worthwhile service. That’s still possible, and we can still hope.

But if the FBI and NCAA are unable to prove direct misdeeds by schools in connection with Adidas, they’re a big underdog against the smarter structure of Nike.

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