A lawyer peered at the defendant in United States District Court and demanded to know: Did you violate college rules and give cash payments to collegiate basketball players?
The defendant, Christian Dawkins, who has spent much of his young life in the netherworld of professional agents, coaches and hustlers, looked pained at the naïveté, not to mention the hypocrisy, encoded in this question.
“We were definitely paying players, yes,” he said. “Everyone was paying players.”
Dawkins, 26, did not stop there. He has watched poor athletes walk into the business known as big-time college hoops and scratch for pennies while coaches and colleges reap multiples of millions of dollars. “Me, personally, I don’t think there is anything wrong with paying players,” he said. “They are the only people in college basketball who can’t get paid.
“The idea that it’s an amateur world is not real.”
Not for the first time in a federal courtroom in Lower Manhattan I was tempted to cheer for the most honest man in a thoroughly corrupt world. All week in this trial, as in other trials, we heard hints and allegations that big-time coaches made or knew of payoffs to star players, and yet the only two defendants were small-timers: Dawkins, a sharp fellow with a dry sense of humor, and his friend Merl Code, a sneaker company employee.
Two years ago, federal prosecutors in New York puffed out their chests and boasted that their investigation and indictments would expose the “dark underbelly” of college basketball. Give prosecutors this much credit: We have peered at darkness. But they failed to convict the bosses: the head coaches, athletic directors, boosters, university presidents.
Instead they rolled up hapless assistants and runners who obtain top-tier talent for these coaches and universities. Prosecutors already convicted Dawkins and Code last autumn for their role in funneling money to recruits and families in exchange for pledges to play at Adidas-sponsored colleges like Kansas, Louisville and North Carolina State. The judge appeared embarrassed when he sentenced the men to six months in prison, noting that more powerful figures had danced away untouched.
Now federal lawyers again are prosecuting these men in seeming retaliation for their refusal to rat out others. Should the government obtain more convictions, you hope the prosecutors will have the self-awareness to forgo celebratory drinks.
Years ago, I covered the trials of John Gotti, a real mafia don. He came into court flexing and preening, leonine in his arrogance, and eventually he departed in handcuffs. There were to his trials a rough justice. Prosecutors and investigators used wiretaps and flipped Mafia soldiers, the so-called “button men,” to testify against Godfathers and capos.
Prosecutors have flipped the script here. They have let the capos testify against the button men while the Godfathers — the coaches and athletic directors and presidents — walk away untouched.
So this week we heard a millionaire investor, Munish Sood, a former bank chairman and financial services adviser, testify against Dawkins. Sood enticed Dawkins to go into business and fronted the young man with the cash needed to recruit players and pay off families. Sood’s play was straightforward: Dawkins would use cash to recruit families of college players, and should the players make it to the N.B.A., Sood would manage their money.
As N.B.A. salaries run into the hundreds of millions and financial advisers can command a handsome slice of that money, Sood needed only a few players to make a golden pile. When his scheme came undone, thanks to undercover F.B.I. informants and wiretaps, Sood quickly pleaded guilty — essentially to victimizing the universities, who are somehow the innocents in all this, according to prosecutors.
Eager to avoid a long-term lease in a federal facility, Sood agreed to testify for the federal government. He gave witness, not against agents or coaches or college presidents, but against Dawkins, his young runner.
Did you know, a defense attorney asked Sood, that your plan to pay off college players broke the rules?
“Yes,” he replied.
Did you care?
“I did not.”
As Sood, a balding middle-aged man, had acknowledged liking the young Dawkins, a defense attorney asked if he felt bad about his betrayal. Sood shrugged. He has a mortgage, a wife and three children, and a financial services business that the federal government for some reason allows him to continue to run.
“I cooperated,” he said. “Everyone has a choice.”
Universities, too, have choices. In these trials, two wealthy head coaches — Bill Self of the University of Kansas, who makes roughly $5 million a year, and Sean Miller of the University of Arizona, who makes more than $4 million — have been exposed as running programs riddled with corruption. Coach Miller’s longtime top assistant, Emanuel Richardson, known as Book, pleaded guilty to bribery.
This week in federal court, Richardson was heard on a 2017 F.B.I. wiretap saying that Miller had “bought” Deandre Ayton, a center who spent a semester and change at Arizona and went on to become the No. 1 pick in last year’s N.B.A. draft.
This is what that sounded like:
“You know what he bought per month?” Richardson said to Dawkins.
How much? Dawkins asked.
“I told you, 10,” Richardson said.
Dawkins was impressed. “He’s putting up some real money,” Dawkins said of the Arizona coach.
In the parlance of college player acquisition, this apparently meant that Miller paid Ayton $10,000 per month to play at Arizona. Miller has denied all wrongdoing. Elsewhere on the wiretaps, Dawkins said of Miller, “He’ll talk on the phone about things he should not talk on the phone about.”
In February, reporters asked Arizona’s athletic director, Dave Heeke, about the swirl of accusations around the still-employed Miller. “I want to be very, very clear about it,” Heeke said. “We support this basketball program, we support these players, we support the coaching staff.”
Arizona officials sounded less buoyant this week. “The University of Arizona is closely monitoring developments in the ongoing trial,” a spokesman told me in a two-line email.
I called the University of Kansas to see if they had digested testimony from last fall that suggested their basketball program was no less corrupted. Their spokesman emailed me a link to a statement, which noted this: “Coach Self and Kansas Athletics are committed to maintaining a culture of compliance, and we will continue these efforts.”
So the sewer pipes of college sports stand exposed and no one on high has the grace to wrinkle a nose at the stink.
We are fortunate to have Dawkins as a tour guide to this world. He is from Saginaw, Mich., a tough precinct, and his younger brother — a top basketball prospect — died in his arms of a heart condition in high school. He later worked for a prominent N.B.A. agent, Andy Miller, whose offices reportedly were raided by the F.B.I.
Every professional agent, Dawkins explained, followed the same model. You identify elite athletes as early as possible, preferably in ninth grade. Then “you ingratiate yourself with the family, the mom and handlers,” and begin to pay them: rent here, car payment there, maybe just walking around money.
Did you, Dawkins’s lawyer asked, do the dirty work?
Dawkins leaned forward to the microphone and said, “That’s fair to say.”
“Obviously Andy was involved in recruiting violations,” Dawkins added in a nonjudgmental, how-could-you-think-otherwise tone.
The headache for the government is that it is not clear Dawkins and Code bribed a coach. Instead, much testimony suggested they gave coaches cash to forward to players to help with rent and walking around money. That broke N.C.A.A. regulations but not federal bribery law. In fact, on F.B.I. recordings, the undercover agent who masqueraded as an investor sounded like the only one truly eager to pay off head coaches.
And Dawkins is heard over and over again on recordings explaining to this “investor” that there was no logic in paying off head coaches. “Raining money doesn’t make any sense,” he said.
“I felt disrespected, to be honest,” Dawkins testified in court. “We’re trying to run a legit business not a bribe-coaches shop.”
Under different circumstances, we might quibble with Dawkins’s characterization of his business as “legit.” In this world, he appears of sterling character. The N.C.A.A. recently proclaimed itself once again shocked to discover that its sports world is a corrupted husk, and sought to appoint outsiders to its board of governors to lend perspective.
I have a suggestion. If they are looking to get real they could do worse than to appoint a wise-beyond-his-years 26-year-old from Saginaw.