College basketball is widely, deeply, and fiercely corrupt

HBO’s “The Scheme” is an impeccable portrait

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The story of NCAA corruption is not new. Who exactly the villains are, though, has been confusing. A new documentary which debuts Tuesday on HBO, “The Scheme,” helps clear it up.

Early in the “The Scheme,” a junior-high-aged Christian Dawkins runs across the 2000 NCAA basketball corruption expose, “Sole Influence.” That 20-year-old book by Dan Wetzel and Don Yeager clearly lays out the true inner workings of NCAA basketball. There have been many more tell-alls written since, from “Play their Hearts Out” to “The Last Temptation of Rick Pitino.” Dirty college sports could have its own shelf in a well-stocked library. 

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You might wonder why college basketball corruption persists, if it’s so well documented. Perhaps it’s a problem publicity can’t fix. Or perhaps “The Scheme” will: it’s brilliantly constructed, riveting, and—now—the bad guys are caught red-handed. The phones were tapped, meetings were videotaped, and the dollars were tracked. Now you can watch.

But before we get into all that, understand that Dawkins grew up in the soul of basketball. He was not only a player at the same Saginaw High School program with Draymond Green and other elite prospects—he was also the son of longtime Saginaw coach Lou Dawkins.

Christian Dawkins learned a lot early on, including that he wasn’t as good as Draymond and that he needed another line of work. To Dawkins, “Sole Influence” would be a playbook. While still in high school, Dawkins was charging $600 a year for an online scouting service, and coaches found him worth the price. He knew all the players and really was in the gym and at tournaments every day. (Nothing wrong with that, of course. However, even Dawkins acknowledges that ranking himself as a top prospect, with a height inflated by several inches, was iffy.)

After his teenage brother Dorian tragically died of heart disease, Dawkins tapped into his basketball network to pay for a memorial and an AAU team in Dorian’s memory. He says he quickly raised more than a hundred thousand dollars from some of the most important people in the sport. His network mattered. 

Before long, NBA agent Andy Miller noticed Dawkins and hired him. Fast forward a few years and Dawkins is at the NBA draft, barely legal to drink, sitting in the green room with Miller and Elfrid Payton’s family. Rodney Hood, Fred VanVleet … Dawkins was instrumental in directing their careers, in the belly of the basketball beast. 

“Everybody knew Andy was paying players,” Dawkins says in “The Scheme.” “Andy’s been paying players since I was born. It wasn’t, like, a secret.”

Corruption is doing very well these days. Sarah Chayes is a global expert and was a guest on the excellent Trump Inc. podcast, from WNYC and ProPublica, on Friday. She talks about sophisticated networks who are attuned to opportunities for fresh revenue. She talks about the recently-signed, two-trillion-dollar federal economic stimulus package. (She also talks about people who profited from the 2008 bailout, one of whom is the current U.S. treasury secretary.) “What I expect from the federal response,” Chayes says on the podcast, “delivered by the Trump administration, is how to mine this situation for lucrative opportunities. That’s what I expect. And that means any infusion of cash, any loosening of regulations, will be fundamentally aimed at capturing revenue streams for the network that has converged on this administration, using everyone’s concern and fear as a stalking horse.”

In 2015, Sarah Chayes published a striking first-hand account of corruption in Afghanistan, called “Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security.” Believe it or not, I thought about that book while watching “The Scheme” because, in both scenarios it seems like just about everyone is in on it. She tells about a corrupt Afghan government official being arrested by police, and then immediately getting freed by top federal officials, before the prosecutor was fired! Chayes ends up working for the Pentagon, where she makes a list of the most nefarious characters, then she learns the CIA is paying many of them. At one point Chayes personally watches as someone she had seen as one of the good guys takes foil-wrapped packages of dollars. 

In some times and places, it’s hard to see corruption as this or that crime. In some times and places, it is the system. You need some bedrock decency and rule of law to build on. If everything is transactional, it’s hard to say anything is wrong. 

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Christian Dawkins tells this story perfectly. As directed by Pat Kondelis, Dawkins unspools his tale looking squarely into the camera, with more than a few self-deprecating comments and even laughs. Of course he has an agenda—to establish that he wasn’t the real criminal. But there’s little need to take his word for anything; the key moments were recorded by the FBI.

Remember when it seemed like these FBI wiretaps might bring down a who’s who of basketball? “The Scheme” goes a long way to explaining why that fizzled. Yes, by the time the U.S. Attorney announced that they had uncovered a giant scheme with Dawkins in the middle, they really did have phone calls and videotapes of meetings that showed all kinds of bad stuff.

“The Scheme” makes two things clear: What’s on those tapes is not business-as-usual in college basketball. It’s something even dumber. FBI agent Jeff D’Angelo posed as a deep-pocketed investor. He showered Dawkins with cash, and instructed him to use it to bribe college coaches. We later learn that this is the FBI’s strategy. There’s no law against paying players, but coaches at public universities are public officials who could be prosecuted for taking bribes. Dawkins is on tape saying it’s a bad plan, but D’Angelo insists, and he is the boss. Dawkins settles on a different approach: Humor his “dumb” investor by appearing to do as he wishes, while simply taking his money. He gets his friends among the coaching ranks to take the meetings just for show, after which Dawkins keeps the envelopes of cash for casino outings with friends, and his business. The corruption at the center of the scandal was not what it seemed.

It gets richer, though, and more like that portrait of Afghanistan. Incredibly, it turns out that D’Angelo himself—the FBI agent running everything—came under fire for misappropriating funds. Exactly what happened isn’t clear, but it centers around a night in Las Vegas when D’Angelo controlled a safe full of FBI cash. Dawkins saw D’Angelo out with one of the story’s top villains, a character named Marty Blazer.

Dawkins got in trouble for shunting money this way or that through college basketball’s underbelly, and his name has been synonymous with sports corruption. But he narrates with enough detail and heart that it’s easy to like him. When the FBI team busts in, guns drawn, Dawkins says he puts his head down because “I don’t want to see them shoot me.” You feel it.

A parlor game emerges from “The Scheme.” Who is the story’s top villain? Some candidates: 

  • Pittsburgh-area financial advisor Marty Blazer: He was caught misappropriating funds from his clients in what Dawkins explains was a “Ponzi scheme to be a movie mogul.” Blazer used some of the money to make something called “MAFIA: The Movie.” The sheer terribleness of the film, to Dawkins, only deepens the crime.

  • Whoever organized this: As reported by John Barr and Jeff Goodman: “A book, ‘Breaking Cardinal Rules: Basketball and the Escort Queen,’ published this month by self-described former escort Katina Powell, 42, details nearly two dozen stripping and sex parties from 2010 to 2014 inside Billy Minardi Hall, the on-campus dorm for athletes and other students named for Louisville men's basketball head coach Rick Pitino's late brother-in-law.”

  • LSU coach Will Wade: Once you see and hear what was really happening behind the scenes, Wade’s denials are Heath Ledger-as-Joker nightmarish. That he remains employed boggles the mind. 

When it seems everyone is corrupt, it’s a cinch to blame the people who accepted the job of policing such things. In this story, it’s the NCAA, which could have played a leading role in each of those three people getting in giant trouble. Instead, none has served any serious punishment. 

Who does Christian Dawkins see as the story’s five top villains? I asked by text. The reply:

  1. Marty Blazer

  2. Prosecutors

  3. The FBI agents

  4. The snitches

  5. Christian Dawkins

Oh, and there’s one more, he says near the end of the documentary: “The moral of the story,” Dawkins says near the end, “is fuck the NCAA.”

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The scheme is available on HBO beginning Tuesday, March 31.

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