Of all the many words spoken during the past three weeks in the federal courtroom of Judge Lewis A. Kaplan, some of which will not make it into the official trial transcript, there was one that inevitably complicated the transformation of the fraud case against Jim Gatto, Merl Code and Christian Dawkins into an NCAA infractions case against the University of Kansas.
One word: “Never.”
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This was the response of the prosecution’s star witness, former Adidas employee T.J. Gassnola, when asked whether Kansas coach Bill Self was aware of $89,000 in payments Gassnola said he presented to the mother of elite prospect Billy Preston, whom the Jayhawks recruited to play basketball. Gassnola was emphatic while on the stand that Self and his coaching staff knew nothing of his activities — described by some within Adidas as “black ops” — to use cash payments to help secure to top talent for Adidas-sponsored programs.
The trial ended Wednesday, with all three defendants found guilty of wire fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud in connection with payments made to the family of Brian Bowen, who signed to play at the University of Louisville. Gatto was also found guilty on another count related to athletes recruited to play at Kansas.
In order for there to be a case of fraud, some entity obviously must be defrauded. In this case, the government argued, those entities were Louisville and Kansas.
Which is why Kansas’ situation — as it pertains to the NCAA — becomes much trickier now than is suggested by the focus and intimations elsewhere regarding text messages and forgotten phone conversations involving KU coaches. Kansas now has a federal court ruling identifying itself as the victim in this case, bolstered by sworn testimony that its employees were unaware of the scheme in question. If you believe the NCAA soon will ride over the hill into Lawrence waving postseason sanctions and show-cause orders, you’re ignoring the question that will be at the core of any subsequent action:
How can Kansas be both victim and perpetrator?
“I just don’t see how you reconcile all of that,” David Ridpath told Sporting News. Ridpath is associate professor of sports administration at Ohio University; he’s a former athletics department compliance officer and is considered an expert on NCAA matters. “How can you win one way, on the federal level, and still have NCAA culpability? The whole thing is fascinating, but also frustrating.”
This figures to be frustrating to many who became suspicious of Self because of text messages presented in court between him and Gassnola that indicated Self was aware Gassnola was working to aid Kansas in its recruitment of particular prospects.
“Just got to get a couple real guys,” Self texted to Gassnola.
“In my mind, it’s KU, Bill Self. Everyone else fall into line. Too (freaking) bad,” Gassnola responded. “That’s what’s right for Adidas basketball. And I know I’m right. The more you have lottery picks and you happy. That’s how it should work in my mind.”
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There was nothing in the exchanges between the two, though, indicating Self was complicit in financial arrangements for players or their families. Getting help in recruiting could mean a lot of things, just as in any circumstance. If I ask you to help me move, you could bring a truck and start carrying out armchairs, or you could call Mayflower and write a check.
It might be more complicated in the case of assistant coach Kurtis Townsend, who was caught on a wiretapped conversation with Code suggesting the Jayhawks might be willing to break rules to secure a commitment from power forward Zion Williamson.
Code: “I know what he’s asking for. He’s asking for opportunities from an occupational perspective, he’s asking for cash in the pocket and he’s asking for housing for him and his family.”
Townsend: “I’ve got to just try to work and figure out a way, because if that’s what it takes to get him for 10 months, we’re going to have to do it some way.”
Some coaches and scouts who understand the business will tell you such statements can be made to keep alive a conversation, to stay in the recruiting game, but Townsend undoubtedly will have to explain himself at some point, to his employers and to the NCAA.
Author Michael Sokolove, who attended portions of the trial and wrote about the case in his new book, “The Last Temptation of Rick Pitino,” said he believes it will be possible for the NCAA to pursue infractions cases even in light of the victim-perpetrator dichotomy.
“I personally don’t see those two things at odds,” Sokolove told SN. “They can be a ‘victim’ according to these federal statutes — even though the sports people sitting in the federal courtroom seemed to find it pretty preposterous — but strictly NCAA rules in some cases seem to have been flagrantly violated.
“Louisville seems even more clear-cut to me. You had two coaches apparently reach in their pocket and pay cash to somebody. It doesn’t get any clearer than that. So Louisville could be construed as a victim by this jury, but that’s the kind of behavior the NCAA traditionally can’t look past.”
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Since the name of the university first appeared in the superseding indictment against Gatto revealed in early April, KU has been comfortable embracing the role of victim. That was a word university spokesman Joe Monaco used in the statement reacting to news of the new charge: “The University of Kansas is named as a victim in a federal indictment.”
When Kansas reacted Wednesday to the news of the convictions, a statement signed by university chancellor Douglas A. Girod and athletic director Jeff Long declared that “once the Justice Department clears us to move forward, we will work with the NCAA to vigorously review new information presented during the trial.”
But they also said they remain “fully supportive” of the coaches and basketball program and that “Coach Self and Kansas athletics are committed to maintaining a culture of compliance.”
Expect KU to defend that culture — or the appearance of one — vigorously. The NCAA’s capitulation in the North Carolina academic scandal was based, at least in part, on the expectation that Carolina would sue if the organization twisted its rulebook to mount a case. Now, if the NCAA goes after Kansas basketball, the university will be able to point to a federal court ruling that says the Jayhawks are victims.
This is no slam dunk.
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