The Hidden Money in College Basketball

Although the NCAA men’s basketball season isn’t set to tip off for another month, many high-profile Division 1 (D1) programs are already embroiled in scandal. On Tuesday began a federal trial of a former Adidas executive. He was accused of the conspiracy and execution of wire fraud—charges that aren’t immediately indicative of the larger implications at hand.

The trial of James Gatto is the first of three federal trials, which in total represent the culmination of years of investigation by the FBI into corrupt recruiting practices by many D1 basketball teams. In late September of last year, the FBI, in conjunction with the Manhattan U.S. Attorney’s office, released a complaint, highlighting an alleged $100,000 payout to a then-unnamed recruit and implicating a number of individuals in coaching and corporate pipelines who facilitated the payment. Assistant coaches at a number of different basketball powerhouses were arrested for and accused of similar behavior. In total, ten people—including four assistant coaches—were arrested as part of what is only the first chapter of the scandal. Additional reports since then have implicated an even wider ring of schools, representative of a serious threat to the integrity of college hoops.

Since the release of that bombshell report, the details of the investigation—initially obscured by vague references to ‘Company-1,’ ‘University-6’ and ‘Player-10’—have largely come to light. ‘Player-10,’ the high school basketball star who has allegedly promised the $100,000 payday, was Brian Bowen, a University of Louisville signee. The Company-1 often referenced in the report was Adidas, where Jim Gatto headed Global Sports Marketing.

Just the opening remarks of Gatto’s trial were enough to send waves through the college basketball community. Instead of denying the substance of the charges, Gatto’s legal team has taken a different approach. They are blaming a culture of corruption that forced competition among high-profile schools to effectively pay for recruits, specifically implicating the University of Oregon in the race to allegedly pay for the talents of Brian Bowen.

The truly diffuse nature of the allegations, which bring in multiple names from most major athletic conferences, is what poses a serious threat to the credibility of the D1 basketball recruiting institution. If the allegations made are true, there exists a previously-secret financial race underlying the recruiting of nearly every star point guard or center. Reconciling this with the purportedly ‘amateur’ nature of college athletics—a point of controversy that has left distaste for the NCAA in the mouths of many college athletes and coaches, and the subject of a number of popular books—is nearly impossible. 

It’s difficult to tell so early into proceedings where, exactly, the trial of Gatto—and later, those of the other individuals implicated—will leave the college basketball programs to remain accused of paying their players. However, the mere existence of this scandal is enough to undermine, in the eyes of athletes, parents, and coaches, the carefully constructed idea of ‘amateurism’ forced upon athletes at college’s top stage by the NCAA. Resistance against restrictive NCAA rules has existed for years, but the outcomes of these trials may push relations between athletes, their advocates, and the NCAA to a breaking point.