By Brendan Pierson and Jonathan Stempel
NEW YORK (Reuters) – U.S. authorities on Tuesday unveiled fraud charges against 10 people associated with some of the country’s premier college basketball programs, including four coaches and an Adidas AG executive, following a two-year corruption probe.
Prosecutors said they uncovered two related schemes, including one in which apparel executives, financial advisers and others bribed assistant college coaches to steer elite players to them, and a second in which players were allegedly bribed to enroll at schools sponsored by Adidas.
The charges reflect what prosecutors called the “criminal influence of money” on National Collegiate Athletic Association basketball, and the conflicts that could arise from the drive to win and the need to provide student-athletes an education.
“College sports has a history of corruption, but the involvement of coaches is particularly troubling,” said Mark Conrad, a sports law and ethics professor at Fordham University’s Gabelli School of Business. “It raises questions about the priorities of the so-called ‘power’ schools.”
The best-known defendant charged is Chuck Person, a former National Basketball Association star who became an associate head coach at Auburn University, his alma mater. Auburn suspended him without pay on Tuesday.
The other coaches charged are Anthony “Tony” Bland, from the University of Southern California; Lamont Evans, from Oklahoma State University; and Emanuel “Book” Richardson, from the University of Arizona.
Some of the other defendants are James Gatto, director for global sports marketing for basketball at Adidas; Rashan Michel, who runs an Atlanta apparel company; New Jersey money manager Munish Sood; and onetime sports agent Christian Dawkins.
Joon Kim, the acting U.S. attorney in Manhattan, told a press conference the defendants showed “contempt” for players and coaches who follow the rules, while the four coaches “abused that trust placed in them by these players and their families.”
Representatives of USC, Oklahoma State, Arizona and the NCAA, which regulates college basketball, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Adidas said in an email it was “unaware of any misconduct and will fully cooperate with authorities to understand more.”
Sood’s firm was not named in court papers. A spokeswoman for a firm matching its description had no immediate comment. Other defendants’ lawyers could not immediately be identified.
TIP OF THE ICEBERG?
Person, 53, was a two-time All-American at Auburn and became its all-time scoring leader. He later played for the Indiana Pacers and other teams in a 13-year NBA career.
Prosecutors said Person accepted $91,500 of bribes over 10 months to steer Auburn players he thought capable of joining the NBA to buy suits from Michel and hire a financial adviser who, unbeknownst to him, was cooperating with prosecutors. They said Person also kicked back $18,500 to two players’ families.
Court papers describe a secretly recorded meeting at a Manhattan hotel last December where Person told an Auburn player that he knew some of his help was “a violation … of rules, but this is how the NBA players get it done, they get early relationships, and they form partnerships, they form trust.”
Auburn said it was “saddened, angry and disappointed” by the news. “We are committed to playing by the rules, and that’s what we expect from our coaches,” it said in a statement.
In a separate complaint, prosecutors said Gatto and others funneled $100,000 from Adidas, identified as “Company-1,” to a high school basketball player’s family to secure his commitment to play at a Kentucky university sponsored by Adidas, and to sign with the company upon turning professional.
The university was not named in court papers, but its description matched that of the University of Louisville. That school did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Paul Haagen, co-director of Duke University’s Center for Sports Law and Policy, said the charges reflect pressure on coaches to recruit players, and on apparel companies to find the next Michael Jordan, the NBA Hall of Famer long associated with Nike Inc.
“Everyone wants to be making money,” Haagen said. “The main significance is whether this probe involves just these charges, or turns into a much bigger investigation. It has the indicia of being much larger.”
(Reporting By Brendan Pierson and Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Dan Grebler)