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What the Devil won't tell you

Grand delusion: NCAA left college hoops open to silly scheme

Future of Arizona basketball threatened by systemic denial that programs run on cash, not grades

The NCAA scandal involving coaches and agents, which threatens the future of the University Arizona men's basketball program, is special.

It's special like it needs a participation trophy for doing it all by itself.

It's special like it needs a helmet to prevent it from whacking its skull with something out of the Craftsmen drawer.

This scandal is stupidity, wrapped in ignorance, predicated on chump's logic and uncovered by an investigative agency that should have better things to do with its time.

If the FBI's case is true — and everyone arrested is presumed innocent, sportswriters who keep forgetting "allegedly" — it goes a little something like this: Sports agents wanted clients so the agents colluded with assistant coaches first to bribe young athletes to play at schools the agents controlled. Then the assistant coaches would steer the bribed players to seek the agents representation once they turned pro. The could assert their influence over young, doe-eyed hoopsters who really didn't get the way that money worked.

Emanuel “Book” Richardson, an Arizona assistant coach, stands accused of playing this game to the detriment of the NCAA's creed that student athletes shall not be exploited for financial or professional gain.

The feds allege Richardson colluded with sports agent Christian Dawkins and financial advisor Mushin Sood in an illegal scheme to bribe players to land at UA and then funnel them toward Dawkins and Sood down the road.

The counts include solicitation of bribes, conspiracy to solicit bribes, wire fraud, conspiracy to commit wire fraud, denial of honest services and conspiracy to deny honest services (yes, that's a thing; we usually call it "kickbacks") to an employer. In case you are wondering, the federal nexus here that makes a federal cause lay in the federal money the University of Arizona receives in grants.

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If convicted, Richardson could face 80 years in prison (but federal sentences in cases like these are usually concurrent, rather than consecutive, so those headlines are a bit overblown). The university has started its process to show him the door, and hired lawyers to carry out a joint CYA/see-who-else-might-need firing internal probe.

Investigators from the FBI's New York field office spent two years digging for the corruption in big-time college basketball. Really? This is the corruption they are looking for in southern Manhattan? Dudes, Wall Street is 3,500 feet from Federal Plaza. It's a straight shot down Broadway. There's even a McDonald's across on the way. Grab a Big Mac, walk down to that patch of asphalt jungle, swing a dead cat. The first thing you hit, haul it in for questioning.

The bankers, ratings agencies and mortgage industry destroyed Tucson's economy for a generation. Book Richardson may have illegally acted to one day help the Cats beat Wisconsin in the Elite Eight.

Every single inch of this scandal perpetrated itself because the NCAA absolutely refuses to accept that big-time men's basketball players are walking debit cards for any number of skeevy conmen, hustlers in expensive suits, loaded megacorporations and legitimate professional services types conniving to send their own kids to college off what they can wring from young athletes' talent and hustle.

Until the NCAA allows for a legal nexus between money and student athletes, the cash machine that is college sports will undermine itself with authoritarian zeal.

I'm not talking about paying student athletes necessarily, but these kids need to be armed with more understanding about just what kind of greed and gluttony they get into when they prepare to sign a letter of intent. They can't even hire an agent, per NCAA rules:

A student-athlete, his or her parents or the university’s professional sports counseling panel may negotiate with a professional sports organization without the loss of the student-athlete’s amateur status. However, a student-athlete who retains an agent will lose amateur status.

That's not just ignorant. It's insipid. These kids are allowed to negotiate a professional deal themselves, just not with the help of a pro who knows how to cut a deal absent pitfalls or poison pills.

If the leaders of college sports don't adapt to reality, they'll suffer at whatever hair-brained scheme the hangers-on concoct.

And if the feds are correct, "hair-brained" would be a kind description of the intrigue that caused at least four men's basketball programs to end up scandalized.

Stupid on the front end

The assumption is these kids are such hayseed innocents that coaches could manipulate them into signing with Dawkins and Sood in anticipation of an obvious pay day.

In the latest turn of the screw, court documents allege that one of those involved in this mess claimed that UA was ready to pay $150,000 to a recruit to commit here, while Louisville allegedly sweated whether it could match the Wildcats' offer with the help of a sportswear company executive.

Let's me digress for just a second to play a game of “find the hayseed innocent.”

Is it:

A) The agents and assistant coaches who were supposedly ready to risk their freedom and their programs for $5,000 a month on the assumption that they knew which incoming freshman would go on to play for the Indiana Pacers and which ones would go on to play for Ironi Ramat Gan?

or

B) “Player 12” in federal documents, who supposedly orchestrated a bidding war for his services between two college basketball powerhouses and had major sportswear executives sweating cash flow.

Which one is the business ninja and which one would you not trust around a gas stove?

And were the defendants, as alleged by the feds, concocting a scheme to bribe Richardson into steering all the top-flight UA draft prospects to Dawkins? That wouldn't look at all fishy. Sood basically told Richardson not to give Wildcat players any options other than signing with himself and Dawkins, according to the court documents.

I guess these kids don't have Google and will never meet another agent. They'll never even ask. If they do, Richardson was just supposed to what? Put their heads in vices? Wouldn't any of the real agents — the top-flight ones — notice all these Wildcats going with minor-league representation because the same coach steered them?

Stupid on the back end

The idea that they would know who the eventual NBA superstars would be also defies history.

The last time Arizona played for the men's championship, four of their star players went on to the pros. Jason Gardner, Loren Woods and Michael Wright combined for 36 professional seasons but only Woods did any real time in the NBA. In fact, 31 of those professional seasons were played for teams like Slask Wroclaw in Poland, Mahram Tehran in Iran and Ironi Ramat Gam in Israel.

In these leagues $250,000 a year would be a heck of a salary and that's about what Richardson makes at the UA. So … the agents would be smarter to sign Book to a deal and forego the alleged felonies.

Richard Jefferson and Gilbert Arenas, who was a better pro than a college player, managed to excel in the NBA. Jefferson has averaged 12.8 points a game and never made an all star team. Agents and business managers weren't going to pay a baby sitter with John Ash and Lamont Frazier's NBA winnings, let alone send junior to college.

Where the real game is played

So, in a sense, the NCAA is correct to argue these kids are students who should focus on their degrees.

But that's not what they are on campus to do.

Let's take a look at Wildcat head coach Sean Miller's contract and see just how much stock the University of Arizona puts into the "student" side of student athlete.

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His contract includes an incentive package that could make him $345,000 on top of his base salary of $1.9 million plus other goodies.

Let's say Miller coaches a Wildcat team to a 22-6 record and a No. 12 national ranking, finishes second in the PAC 12 and loses the conference tournament championship. That's a good regular season. Damned fine. Now, let's say his students make every academic benchmark the contract can envision. Then Arizona, oh I don't know, loses in the first round. I know. What are the odds?

Miller would make $50,000 in incentives and they wold be on academics alone because he would have failed to achieve any of the on-court goals of his contract. He wouldn't finish in the Top 10. He wouldn't win the PAC 12 title. He wouldn't win the PAC 12 tournament. He wouldn't advance past the first round of March Madness.

Now, let's say his students tanked in the classroom to the maximum amount while still retaining eligibility and he got maybe just half the academic incentive. However, the Wildcats finish the season ranked No. 8 nationally with a 23-5, finish first in the PAC 12, win the conference tournament and again get bounced from the Elite Eight by Wisconsin.

Miller would then cash in on $320,000 in incentives. His contract is entirely geared toward the coach being a little bit better on the court and a lot worse in the classroom.

Why?

Money.

Money finds a way

The college-sports industrial complex is making billions that depend on what these kids can do with a round, bouncy ball. It's got nothing to do with them ever cracking a book.

In 2011, ESPN and FOX paid $3 billion (with a “b”) over 12 years for the rights to broadcast PAC 12 games. Why could they do that? They made the calculation that they would make at least $3,000,000,001 off the rights to do so.

When the NCAA, Turner Sports and CBS negotiated a deal to buy the rights to March Madness, do you think they paid in tutors and college books? Nope. Try $10.8 billion over 14 years.

A $150,000 signing bonus, or a $5,000-a-month retainer, is understandable compared to the billions flying around the NCAA.

I'm reminded of Jeff Golblum in "Jurassic Park" explaining life can't be restrained so I paraphrase with cash: “Money finds a way.”

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The grand delusion

This is what happens when you put jocks in charge. Coaches like to operate under the “Because I Said So” Doctrine of Leadership. The NCAA likes to pretend, when it comes to students, that places like McKale Center exist as wombs of financial purity while a Cat 5 of gusting cash tears at the roof. The boys and girls in Indianapolis insist on treating students who advance to the Final Four the way they treat students who may crew against Oxford.

These kids are wise to the fact that they rainmakers for the NCAA, the conferences, the institutions and the coaches. We also live in a world where money pays for things and the kids, assistants and agents know that too. Gaining money changes reality for those who haven't had it. So they want it, bad.

In fact, (again, according to the FBI's rather detailed first account) when Sood and Dawkins approached Richardson, there was zero talk of “oh my gosh, bribing kids isn't right.” Instead it was more like “of course we can bribe students,” the investigators alleged.

I bet the feds have spent zero time investigating free agency in pro sports because pay to play is the whole ball game.

The human experience is thrown forward by the forces of survival, procreation and supply and demand. So we develop rules and religion to keep those primal forces from tearing the community apart.

Who knows if Richardson is guilty and if so, what that will mean to the Arizona Wildcat basketball program that can swing Tucson's collective mood with every win or loss. A lot more is going to happen between now and when we discover those fates (but if the allegations are proven true, we might want to pay more attention to Tucson Roadrunners games).

Maybe another visceral urge guides our experience as a species: Executive self-delusion.

Blake Morlock covered Arizona government and politics for 15 years, including 11 in the Tucson Citizen. He also worked on Democratic Party campaigns in the field of political communications. Now he’s telling you things that the Devil won’t.


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