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Seven Thoughts on the State of College Basketball’s Ongoing FBI Investigation

A pair of recent reports have shaken the sport to its core. But what do we really know about Sean Miller’s wiretapped call, Christian Dawkins’s spreadsheets, and how the federal probe into the recruiting black market could impact this year’s coaches and players?

Arizona men’s basketball head coach Sean Miller surrounded by a dark cloud Getty Images/Ringer illustration

I want to make something abundantly clear before we get to the meat and potatoes of this article: There isn’t a human being on earth who wants to see the current college basketball system burn to the ground more than I do. Considering that I love the sport so much and that I get paid to cover it, I wouldn’t blame someone for assuming that I’m incentivized to protect the perceived sanctity of college basketball. Nothing could be further from the truth. I want all of the cheaters to be exposed. I want the FBI investigation into the recruiting black market to force the NCAA into massive reform. And I want a new college sports model to rise from the ashes in place of the antiquated one that has led to this mess. (It should be noted that I also want shit to hit the fan because I subscribe to the Rovellian belief that content trumps all.) For decades, it’s been the worst-kept secret in sports that the highest level of college basketball has been controlled by agents, shoe companies, runners, and rogue coaches. It would be nice if the NCAA stopped feigning ignorance and finally started to do something about it.

I give all this context to explain why I, along with the rest of the sports world, was licking my lips last Friday when two massive developments broke pertaining to the ongoing federal probe into corruption in college basketball. The first came early in the morning, when Yahoo Sports released a story that included leaked documents tied to Christian Dawkins, the 25-year-old former associate of onetime NBA agent Andy Miller. Those documents appeared to suggest that a handful of current and former players on some of the most prestigious programs in the country had accepted impermissible benefits, leading many fans to wonder how this year’s NCAA tournament might be affected.

Then, later that same day, ESPN dropped one of the biggest bombshells in college basketball history: It published a report that the FBI had used a wiretap to record a conversation between Dawkins and Arizona head coach Sean Miller in which the two discussed arranging a $100,000 payment in exchange for ensuring the commitment of then-five-star recruit and now Arizona star Deandre Ayton.

These two reports coming out on the same day shook the college basketball world to its core. When the people of the internet weren’t offering up “live looks at Sean Miller,” they were calling for heads to roll and/or dancing on the graves of their rivals. Meanwhile, Dick Vitale almost blew a gasket talking about how disappointed he was during the Duke-Syracuse game Saturday. Despite the multitude of reactions to the two reports, everyone seemed to agree on one thing: College basketball would never be the same. That much became clear when all of the active Division I players named in the reports … uhh … still played Saturday? Including Ayton? And Arizona not only didn’t fire Miller—the school still hasn’t even put him on administrative leave. How is that possible? Is the NCAA really that corrupt?

To the common fan, it probably made no sense how the Yahoo and ESPN reports could lead to virtually no immediate changes. (While Miller didn’t coach his team’s game at Oregon on Saturday, that was presented as his decision and not the result of a suspension.) That’s why I think it’s useful to explain just what the hell is going on with all of this. Here are seven thoughts on college basketball’s suddenly all-consuming crisis.

1. The Yahoo report that included Dawkins’s spreadsheets is a different animal than the ESPN report about the wiretapped conversation between Dawkins and Miller.

It’s crucial to not paint all of these reports with the same broad strokes. The casual observer might have seen a headline alleging that Miller paid $100,000 to get Ayton to Arizona, seen a different headline that former Virginia star Malcolm Brogdon was named in the Yahoo report, and been tempted to assume that Cavaliers coach Tony Bennett dropped duffel bags of cash on Brogdon’s doorstep to get him to come to Charlottesville. That’s not a fair conclusion to draw. The two reports should not only be treated as independent of one another, but each of the names listed within the reports should also be examined on a case-by-case basis. We’ll get to the problems with some of the evidence that has been made public in a bit. For now, though, I implore you to recognize the varying severity of each player’s alleged improprieties.

2. All of this information is getting leaked through back channels.

Basically, this point boils down to “consider the source.” Because the information obtained by Yahoo and ESPN is part of an ongoing trial—the U.S. attorney’s office charged Dawkins with three counts of wire fraud and one count of money-laundering conspiracy in September, and charged former Arizona assistant coach Emanuel “Book” Richardson with bribery and fraud—it had to have come from one of four places: the FBI, the judge or court overseeing each respective trial, somebody representing the prosecution, or somebody in the camps of the defendants. Given the timing and nature of the information, it’s a solid bet that in both reports, the source is the fourth of four options. While that doesn’t necessarily mean that bullshit detectors should be going off, it’s at least important to remember that the people releasing this information probably have an agenda.

It’s not for me to speculate what that agenda is, but none of these decisions were random. There has to be some motivating factor that compelled the leakers to reach out to Yahoo and ESPN, and there has to be a reason they chose to release exactly the information they did.

3. The Miller wiretap report isn’t anywhere close to the smoking gun that it initially seemed. (At least not yet, anyway.)

Sean Miller
Sean Miller
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

When ESPN’s Mark Schlabach first reported that the FBI had wiretapped conversations of Miller discussing payments with Dawkins, the consensus in the media was that this news was completely damning and that Miller’s judgment day was imminent. After all, a head coach at one of the 10 most prestigious programs in the country getting caught on tape discussing a six-figure recruiting scheme with a runner from an agency is about as juicy and easy a case as the NCAA—an organization whose enforcement arm has botched cases more than a few times in recent years—could possibly ask for. In the days that followed, though, what was originally depicted as an open-and-shut case has been subject to increasing skepticism.

For starters, Schlabach’s story provided zero direct quotes from the wiretap, suggesting that he hasn’t listened to the recording or even seen a transcript of the call. Also, Schlabach said in a televised interview that the wiretapped call took place in the spring of 2017, which would mean that the discussion over payments to guarantee Ayton’s commitment took place after he had signed his national letter of intent in November 2016. ESPN issued a correction to its story and said that the alleged call took place in “spring of 2016,” a timeline that was later corrected yet again to read simply “2016.” But even that doesn’t completely clear up the time-frame issue when you consider that a 247Sports report from Monday includes this passage: “Sources say that the U.S. Attorney’s office notified multiple parties who had conversations with Dawkins that their phone calls had been recorded specifically during the dates of June 19, 2017 and Sept. 25, 2017.”

Further complicating matters is that, as CBS Sports’ Gary Parrish pointed out on Twitter, those who closely follow recruiting seem to think that Ayton and Dawkins never had much of a relationship, casting doubt on the notion that Dawkins would have been in position to “sell” Ayton’s services in the first place. And let’s not forget that there’s likely a specific reason this piece of information about the wiretap call was leaked to the media.

There are two questions surrounding Miller that keep tripping me up:

  • Why would the head coach of Arizona handle his dirty business himself and not have an assistant serve as his fall guy, especially when the person on the other end of the purported interaction (Dawkins) was in his 20s?
  • If the FBI had stone-cold proof that Miller offered a $100,000 bribe to land a sought-after recruit—which is what the public has been led to believe—why wasn’t Miller arrested along with the rest of the guys whom the FBI threw cuffs on in September?

To be clear, I’m not saying that Miller is innocent or that the tape in question doesn’t exist. For all that I know, the FBI might release a tape tomorrow in which Miller will be revealed to have said: “I, Sean Miller, head coach of the Arizona University Wildcats basketball team, will pay you, Christian Dawkins, $100,000 if you can convince Deandre Ayton to commit to my program. The payment will be made by placing stacks of non-consecutive $20 bills in a duffel bag that will be left behind the handicap toilet at Dirtbag’s on Wednesday at 2:15 a.m.”

All I’m saying is that it seems like nobody has concrete details as of now, which is why the smart move is to not rush to judgment until we do know something for certain. That is exactly the same conclusion the University of Arizona seems to have drawn by not placing Miller on administrative leave.

4. The Dawkins spreadsheets represent only circumstantial evidence.

The spreadsheets included in the Yahoo report are not receipts. At this point, they link more than 25 current and former college basketball players to the FBI probe who weren’t linked to it previously. That’s it. There’s a decent chance that Dawkins was 100 percent factual with everything he documented and that every name mentioned in the report is implicated in this investigation in some way. However, there’s also a decent chance that the opposite is true and that not everything listed is accurate. More context is necessary to fully decipher the spreadsheets.

Maybe Dawkins fudged some numbers because he was trying to impress his boss. Maybe the dinners he had with players who hadn’t left college yet and/or their families were just harmless exploratory meetings and the players/families paid for their own meals. Hell, maybe some of these meetings didn’t happen whatsoever. Or maybe Dawkins’s documents do indeed tell the whole truth.

The point is, as with the Miller wiretap situation, nobody can say for sure what happened in the absence of stronger evidence, such as bank records, actual receipts, etc. If such evidence exists, it hasn’t been made public yet. That’s why the Dawkins spreadsheets don’t carry the weight that those only casually following this story may feel like they should.

5. Players, coaches, and schools appear to understand the aforementioned points. That’s why virtually no one has been suspended or fired.

Let’s come back to the million-dollar question: Why has nothing happened to the players and coaches named in these reports? If I haven’t made this clear enough above, it’s because the schools all know just how flimsy the existing evidence is. They know that the NCAA doesn’t have the balls to try to dish out punishments based on what’s been leaked to the public thus far. So they are choosing to go about their business as usual and dare the NCAA to do something about it. The optics aren’t great, but I’m inclined to believe that due process is far more important than giving fans their pound of flesh.

That’s what all of these individual cases boil down to for me: We just have to be patient and let everything play out. It’s hard to do this, I know. I want to accept every salacious headline as gospel and cackle as college basketball crumbles to the ground as much as the next guy. But when this happens, I want it to happen in a just way and not because someone with an agenda has leaked selected bits of information to the media. How this FBI saga with college basketball is playing out so far is not the path to major NCAA reform, which is why I’m laying down my pitchfork for the time being and crossing my fingers that there is still more to come.

Speaking of which …

6. It’s unclear how much dirt the FBI has.

If you’re underwhelmed with the FBI’s original charges and are worried that none of college basketball’s big fish are going to be punished as a result of this investigation, I have great news for you: What we’ve seen so far may well be the tip of the iceberg. And if your school was implicated in the initial reports and you’re worried more trouble is imminent, I have great news for you, too: What’s been leaked so far may be the most significant pieces of the FBI’s case. Anyone who pretends to know what’s going to happen next is speculating. So take a deep breath, do your best to avoid visceral reactions to headlines, and wait to see how this plays out from here.

And if all else fails and you find yourself desperate for at least one big-name coach or player to crash and burn so that you can make jokes at his expense, just remember the most important point of all.

7. We can all still make fun of Rick Pitino.

Seven billion years from now, when the sun engulfs the earth, Rick Pitino—who will have achieved immortality in 2025 after transforming into a vampire—will flee to a galaxy far away. He will land on a planet that has never before inhabited life, and he’ll instantly call a press conference for which nobody asked. He will then take full responsibility for “everything that happened” without specifying exactly what he’s referring to, and he’ll follow that up by explaining how he did nothing wrong and had no idea what was going on. And just as he starts to sense that his audience of zero might not be buying the stream of bullshit he’s selling, he’ll invoke 9/11 for no relevant reason, take a big swig of coconut water, and convince himself that he’s just one more press conference away from vindication.