NEW YORK (AP) — Lawyers at a trial exploring corruption in big-time college basketball clashed in closing arguments Wednesday over the question of whether major programs were harmed by an alleged scheme to give secret cash payments to the families of top recruits.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Noah Solowiejczyk told a jury in federal court in Manhattan that a former Adidas executive and two co-defendants were shady fixers who put Louisville, Kansas and other universities at risk for costly sanctions by the NCAA by concealing the prohibited payments. The cover-up also tricked colleges into giving scholarships to players who should have been ineligible, he said.
“That’s a crime,” the prosecutor said. “It’s called fraud.”
A lawyer for defendant Christopher Dawkins, a business manager instrumental in steering prized prospect Brian Bowen Jr. to Louisville, called the government “theory” that the schools were victims “flawed.” He claimed that his client thought he was helping the program succeed to the benefit of everyone involved.
“What proof did the government present that Louisville suffered any harm?” said attorney Steven Haney. “In Christopher Dawkins’ mind, he thought what he was doing was OK.”
Dawkins, former amateur league director Merl Code and former Adidas executive James Gatto, have pleaded not guilty to charges that they committed fraud by plying the families with cash so the prospects would attend colleges sponsored by the athletic wear company.
Prosecutors say the three struck an illicit deal to give $100,000 to Bowen’s father for his son to commit to Louisville. Once the criminal investigation was made public, Bowen left the school without ever playing and coach Rick Pitino was fired despite denying any wrongdoing.
In his closing, Solowiejczyk recounted testimony from cooperators and wiretap evidence about how the defendants took steps to create false invoices to Adidas, route funds through various bank accounts and convert it to cash that was delivered in envelopes to family members in parking lots and hotel rooms.
The behavior “tells you an awful lot about the defendants,” the prosecutor said. “It tells you that what they were doing was wrong.”
The defendants haven’t denied that there were attempts to funnel cash to the recruits’ families. But they’ve argued that was how the recruitment game was played and that talent-hungry coaching staffs knew it.
Haney said Dawkins was even advising Bowen to consider Oregon, a Nike-sponsored school, in a competition known as “sneaker wars.” A text message in evidence that Code, who was a consultant for Adidas, sent to Dawkins implored: “Don’t send Bowen to Oregon.”
Dawkins “was working just as much to help Nike schools,” the lawyer said.
Once the scandal broke, Bowen transferred to South Carolina but was never cleared to play college basketball and is pursuing a professional career.
Closing arguments were to continue Thursday with deliberations expected to begin next week.