Some sports agents and shoe companies have funneled money for decades to individuals close to elite basketball prospects in attempts to steer players to specific universities, agents and apparel companies.
It’s college basketball’s well-established underbelly.
But Tuesday’s bombshell that federal prosecutors have arrested 10 individuals — including Oklahoma State assistant coach Lamont Evans — in a corruption scheme provides, in details laid out in court documents, a nearly unprecedented public window into that world.
The 10 men, including four men’s basketball assistant coaches and a top Adidas executive, were charged with using hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes to influence top players’ choice of schools, agents and shoe sponsors.
It is an “amateur” basketball world where holding power and influence over prospects means everything. And those who have long held the most power and influence have been agents and shoe companies.
Federal prosecutors said some of the bribe money was funneled to players and their families and some to their coaches.
These charges offer a wide snapshot of college basketball’s recruiting playbook.
Sonny Vaccaro, one of the most influential figures in college basketball the past 40 years, helped create the current grassroots basketball landscape as a power broker for Nike, Adidas and then Reebok. But even Vaccaro, upon learning of the scope of the case, said, “I thought I was watching ‘Goodfellas.’”
In a telephone interview Tuesday, Vaccaro said: “You have the financial people. You have the agent. You have the shoe companies who want to sign the player to a contract. And you have the university wanting the player to take them to the Final Four. Follow the money? This is the whole damn story.”
For college basketball, this has long been the story. And it’s only intensified the past 20 years, as more figures – agents, financial advisers and shoe company reps – have latched onto elite prospects with intent to steer them to advisors and representation with under-the-table money. This dynamic has made the traditional high school coach far less relevant and, in some cases, completely irrelevant in the recruiting process.
The NCAA’s attempts to control outside influences have often been futile. The organization does not have subpoena power. And the individuals attempting to curry favor with the prospects are often at least one step ahead with creative practices to funnel money.
Here is the traditional blueprint: Shoe companies sign top AAU basketball programs to sponsorship deals, inking their best coaches to six-figure contracts. Many AAU coaches then set up their programs as nonprofit charities under IRS guidelines. Some representatives of sports agencies then make tax-deductible donations to the programs to try to gain influence over the AAU coach and, in turn, top players.
Dave Telep, the former ESPN national recruiting analyst, told me in recent years, “There is no paper trail. It is too easy to get done, and too difficult to prove. The people within the world of AAU and college basketball have a pretty good idea that that is out there. They also have no idea how to combat it.”
Because of these financial relationships - and how close some AAU coaches are to players -- some AAU programs have been essentially tethered to specific sports agencies, operating as a pipeline for the top player even before they enter college. It can become so entrenched, ESPN’s Fran Fraschilla once told me, “Sadly these kids are treated like commodities. Often times right after an elite 15-year-old chooses an AAU program, then he chooses an agent not long after that.”
As Tuesday’s news underscored, it’s not the college coach, the AAU coach or the well-heeled college booster who often holds the most influence with elite players. Ultimately, it’s the sports agents and shoe companies who control many aspects of college basketball’s recruiting landscape because they have the money to gain the influence.
This isn’t new. Flash back a quarter-century and consider the cautionary tale of Southern California wunderkind Schea Cotton, who was considered the LeBron before LeBron.
He wasn’t merely a precocious 16-year-old courted by colleges. The chase to land Cotton grew so intense that he sometimes went home to 20 individuals – everyone from shoe company power brokers to sports agent reps – in his home enjoying his mom’s cooking. At times, he told me, he wanted to tell them all to “get the hell out of the house.”
“Agents would come and say, ‘What kind of car do you want to drive? What kind of house you want to live in?” Cotton’s mother, Gaynell, told me in recent years. “We didn’t take anything. If we had taken the money, you belong to someone else. His life would not be his own.”
Now the feds are involved in college basketball. The sport has a scandal that has rocked it to its core, illuminating that underbelly. And the public gets a rarely seen glimpse of a web of financial relationships and the outsized role that agents and shoe companies play in college basketball.
“This is real. This is federal. This is fraud …,” Vaccaro said. “This is where we are, NCAA. It’s the college, the coach, the shoe company. This is who did it.”