How the FBI Accidentally Exposed the Evils of College Athletics
The new HBO documentary “The Scheme,” airing March 31, explores the 2017 bribery and fraud scandal in the NCAA, which shined a light on how much the NCAA exploits its athletes.
The concept of amateurism in big-time college sports is a joke, and for evidence of that fact, one need look no further than The Scheme, director Pat Kondelis’ documentary (premiering March 31 on HBO) about the 2017 bribery and fraud scandal that rocked the NCAA. At the center of that story was Christian Dawkins, an enterprising young entrepreneur whose efforts to start a sports management firm put him in the crosshairs of the FBI, which viewed him as the centerpiece figure in its case against college basketball corruption.
The question, however, is whether an actual crime took place—especially since, as far as anyone can tell, there were no victims.
Dawkins’ tale begins in Saginaw, Michigan, where his father Lou was famous for leading the celebrated local high school to back-to-back championships. In such an environment, it was only natural that Dawkins also had lofty hoop dreams. Yet after a year on the varsity team alongside future Golden State Warriors superstar Draymond Green, he quickly realized that the NBA was out of reach, and he turned his attention to the agency and management side of the industry. There, Dawkins discovered he had a preternatural gift for developing relationships with players, which led him to create his own paid-subscription scouting report service and, afterwards, got him a job working for renowned agent Andy Miller.
As underlined by glowing comments from current Toronto Raptors guard Fred VanVleet, Dawkins was a natural at wooing and supporting up-and-coming athletes. Having signed two NBA players right out of the gate (Elfrid Payton and Rodney Hood), Dawkins’ career was on a skyrocketing trajectory until his relationship with Miller ended suddenly over “Ubergate,” a scandal in which Dawkins—accidentally, according to him—charged Payton’s credit card with $42,000 of Uber charges. Though this proved to be national news, it didn’t deter Dawkins’ ambition, and he responded by setting up his own management company by teaming with businessman Marty Blazer, bank chairman Munish Sood, and ultimately, lavish investor Jeff D’Angelo.
The Scheme lays out its saga via prolonged interviews with Dawkins, which inevitably slants the material in his favor. Since Dawkins often undersells his somewhat shadier practices, that bias is occasionally frustrating, leaving the documentary feeling less than wholly reliable—an issue compounded by unnecessary and chintzy dramatic recreations starring Dawkins himself. Nonetheless, neither shortcoming is enough to interfere with the film’s lucid recount of the ensuing ordeal, which was instigated by Dawkins’ central business plan: to pay college players under the table in order to steer them to certain schools, all in the hopes that when they eventually turned pro, they’d repay the favor by signing with Dawkins’ L.O.Y.D. Management. Cash envelopes also went to college basketball coaches, in what was basically a system in which kids were the targets, and beneficiaries, of bidding wars between the country’s elite programs and agencies.
The problem with this, of course, is that the NCAA doesn’t allow college kids to receive money for their services, because they’re designated as amateurs. Thus, what Dawkins and his colleagues were up to was in direct violation of NCAA rules. In response, the FBI set about orchestrating a plan that would bring down Dawkins and, by extension, catch them their true big fish: head coaches like Will Wade (LSU), Sean Miller (Arizona) and Rick Pitino (Louisville), the last of whom was fired because of this mess. The FBI did this by funding Dawkins’ operation via Jeff D’Angelo, who was actually an undercover agent, and by having D’Angelo compel Dawkins to bribe these coaches directly—a practice that, on wiretapped phone calls and again here, Dawkins claims made no sense, and to which he vigorously objected, given that paying off coaches did nothing to help him recruit players to his agency.
D’Angelo’s demand that Dawkins do this against his wishes, and the FBI’s subsequent prosecution of Dawkins for bribery and fraud charges—possible only because college coaches are technically designed as public officials—sounds a whole lot like entrapment. Moreover, it sounds suspiciously like a non-crime, unless one equates NCAA regulations with actual laws (which, you know, they’re not). To paint Dawkins as a crook, the Southern District of New York contended that Dawkins and his accomplices had defrauded the universities themselves, because by paying players, they had destroyed the kids’ amateur standing and therefore voided the scholarships the schools had offered. Somehow this tack successfully netted two convictions against Dawkins—to the tune of 18 months in federal prison—regardless of the fact that the universities can’t possibly be viewed as victims of a scheme in which they willingly participated, in order to net them great players that would make them hundreds of millions from their basketball programs.
Is all of this shady? Unquestionably. Yet as The Scheme illustrates, Dawkins’ headline-making plight is an example of the absurdity of college athletics amateurism, which denies 18-year-olds (and older) the right to earn a living from a job that produces billions for universities and the NCAA, as well as criminalizes anyone interested in enticing employees with financial offers. No one suffers from college athletes making money, which is why for all of Dawkins’ unsavory behavior—including redirecting D’Angelo’s payments for coaches into his own pocket—it’s hard to comprehend whom he’s wronged. The kids? They earned their market value from the teams for which they wanted to play. The schools? They got their coveted stars and succeeded on the court, resulting in huge windfalls. And the agents? They made economic gambles in order to forge connections with potential future clients.
Consequently, The Scheme’s central scandal plays like a tempest in a teapot—not to mention one that’s undoubtedly repeated all across the country, at schools both big and small, and at basketball and football programs. It’s no surprise that Dawkins, while appealing his convictions, has already landed a deal to run his own personal Atlantic Records label, because in any other industry, his wheeling and dealing is considered above-the-board and a wholesale benefit.
Which, in turn, confirms Dawkins’ own opinion about the moral of his story: “Fuck the NCAA.”