LEGAL BRIEF - Sports Illustrated Vault | SI.com
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LEGAL BRIEF

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SI's legal analyst answers some PRESSING QUESTIONS in the wake of one of the biggest scandals in college basketball history

WILL HEAD COACHES FACE CRIMINAL CHARGES?

They could. Athletic directors and even university presidents might also have reason to worry—if you think of college basketball as a network of crime families with syndicates and associations. As FBI agents continue their investigation, they may learn of new entanglements.

If reliable evidence surfaces that high-ranking university officials directed, authorized or even acquiesced to assistant coaches taking bribes, those administrators will almost certainly face charges. If the government wishes to expose an industry rife with corruption and also educate Americans on which acts constitute crimes, taking down a head coach or athletic director would produce a more lasting impression than going after an assistant coach.

With that in mind, the Justice Department will most likely engage in plea bargain discussions with lawyers for the assistant coaches and the other named defendants. Emails, text messages, direct messages on social media, recordings, documents, financial statements and other correspondence could help the Justice Department prove the guilt of other people. And it's worth noting that an assistant who reaches a plea deal may be required to testify against his head coach.

WILL COACHES RECEIVE ADDITIONAL SCRUTINY?

It's a myth that coaches operate on an island cut off from the mainland university. Athletic departments employ compliance officers—many of whom are lawyers—to ensure that teams, coaches and student-athletes adhere to NCAA rules. Some universities also direct senior school administrators to oversee aspects of the athletic department. This should ensure that the president and provost are informed of athletic department happenings.

Except when it doesn't. It's obvious that some schools give their coaches autonomy in return for a winning—and more lucrative—program. Further, a compliance officer is not always in position to confront a coach. Imagine a twentysomething compliance officer, fresh out of law school, reprimanding Rick Pitino. Exactly.

The criminal charges announced last week change this dynamic. It is now incumbent that university leaders oversee athletics. Perhaps that means a more direct, rather than dotted, line between the university's general counsel and the athletic director. Or it means some employees report not to the coach or AD but to the general counsel or president.

While approaches will vary by university, coaches—even prominent ones—are likely to face more restrictions and oversight.

COULD THE STUDENT-ATHLETES IMPLICATED IN THE CORRUPTION SCANDAL FACE CRIMINAL CHARGES?

Yes, those who knowingly accepted bribes as part of a conspiracy that led them to attend a particular college or sign with a particular adviser could face charges for bribery and conspiracy. They could also be charged with wire fraud depending upon how they received the money. Also, assuming taxes weren't paid, tax evasion could become another charge. Family members involved in such dealings could face the same charges.

It's unlikely, though, that student-athletes or their families will face charges—as long as they cooperate with the FBI. The Justice Department has given no signals that it plans on prosecuting these athletes, possibly because they're invaluable witnesses.

COULD THE NCAA DECLINE TO IMPOSE ELIGIBILITY PENALTIES ON IMPLICATED STUDENT-ATHLETES?

The NCAA finds itself in a strange place, with no control over a college sports corruption scandal. On one hand, it can use findings by the federal government to sanction various offenders of amateurism rules. The NCAA might reason that it ought to punish student-athletes who received payments or whose families received payments. After all, violations allegedly occurred.

On the other hand, the NCAA's system of amateurism is now under a new microscope—the FBI's. The NCAA might conclude that a more sensible approach would be to permit these athletes to play—at least until the federal cases play out. The NCAA could withhold judgment until the courts render a verdict.

WHAT ABOUT COLLEGE FOOTBALL?

It stands to reason that if bribes occurred in college basketball, the same may be true in college football. Both are big-time, big-money sports with deep ties to apparel companies and investment advisers. But though football is a larger and more lucrative sport overall, high school players are not as interesting to agents because the NFL's three-year rule gives them time to evaluate the best prospects once they reach college. The one-and-done basketball players will be signing pro contracts—and lucrative shoe deals—much more quickly.

Also, while one star college football player can make a difference to his team, he probably won't have the same degree of impact as a star basketball player. Sure, there are exceptions, but the incentive to bribe is just not as powerful.