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“Money, Bribes, and Basketball”: The Trial of Christian Dawkins

An aspiring agent was convicted in federal court this week for crimes he committed in the “seedy underground” of college basketball. His trial was an exhibition of the hypocrisy of an NCAA system that prevents players from making money for their labor.

Pablo Iglesias

On the first day of May, a hush fell over a Manhattan federal courtroom as wooden doors opened and lawyers and defendants entered and took their seats. Soon after the judge ordered the day’s proceedings to begin, defense attorney Steve Haney said, “Thank you, your honor, and at this time, we would call Christian Dawkins.” It was a surprising development in a trial that had been highly anticipated in college basketball circles for months. Everyone directed their gaze toward the defense counsel’s table as Dawkins, 26, slowly rose from his seat and approached the witness stand. He would make a case for his innocence to the jury; the cost of failure could mean a prison sentence.

Dawkins stood trial alongside Merl Code, a former Adidas consultant. Federal prosecutors were accusing the men of conspiring to bribe assistant basketball coaches to influence players to sign with Dawkins’s management company once they turned professional. The trial was the result of a three-year FBI investigation into corruption in the sport. Last year, Dawkins was convicted in a separate trial connected to the probe on wire-fraud charges related to funneling payments to players’ families; in March, he was sentenced to six months in prison, which his attorney said he’s appealing. Last week, for the first time, he testified in his own defense. On the stand, he insisted he had no reason to bribe college coaches. Why would he? Their leverage was limited. He wanted to gain influence with players, so it was better to go directly to the source.

“Everybody from a youth basketball coach, a player’s parent—that’s a father, a mother, a sister, a brother. Basically, anybody who was in charge of the kid’s recruitment process was paid,” Dawkins testified, adding later that athletes are “the only people in college that can’t get paid legally.”

Before his arrest in September 2017, Dawkins was an aspiring agent who worked as a runner at ASM Sports, a firm headed by former NBA agent Andy Miller. It was Dawkins’s job, as Haney said in his opening remarks, to do the “dirty work for these agents at ASM. He did the things that the attorneys there didn’t want to do, were too old to do.” He had relationships with players and their families and provided payments for various expenses, ranging from spending cash to paying rent.

Dawkins grew up in Saginaw, Michigan, the son of Lou Dawkins, a basketball coach. At 16, he took over his father’s AAU team. In 2009, he renamed the team from Saginaw Pride to Dorian’s Pride after his younger brother, Dorian Dawkins, a highly touted basketball prospect, who collapsed during a game at age 14 and was rushed to the hospital. He died that night; an autopsy revealed he had a rare heart defect. Christian Dawkins organized basketball camps and tournaments in the region, awarding plaques to players with Dorian’s name inscribed on them.

Dawkins wanted to make inroads in the industry and eventually represent professional players. He started a management company called LOYD, an acronym for “Living Out Your Dreams,” which became a vehicle for his ambitions. He envisioned himself as a heavy hitter in the grassroots circuit, where access to talent is the ultimate currency; by acquiring it, he could ingratiate himself to powerful interests in the sport.

In some respects, Dawkins’s testimony was not only a defense against the charges he faced but also a rebuke of NCAA amateurism, which prohibits student-athletes from receiving compensation beyond their scholarship, despite the value they provide to the multibillion-dollar college athletics industry. The prosecution depicted Dawkins as a shady operative whose actions defrauded universities by violating NCAA rules.

“You can’t defraud a school,” Dawkins testified. “I don’t even know how that’s possible by players getting money. The school’s getting money. It’s ridiculous.”

After court adjourned for the day, Dawkins embraced his father outside the courtroom and let out a deep sigh as he walked to a nearby elevator. As the doors opened, he turned toward a group assembled in the hallway and said, to no one in particular, “It was the best chance we’ll get.”

As I watched Dawkins testify, I saw him as a cautionary tale for the consequences of sidestepping a system designed to keep NCAA basketball players from being paid for their labor. In the prosecution’s opening remarks, Assistant U.S. Attorney Eli Mark said: “This is a case about money, bribes, and basketball. It’s about the seedy underground of college sports and two insiders who are looking to cheat to get ahead.”

Dawkins’s testimony did expose elements of the sport’s seedy underground, of which he admitted he was a willing participant. Prosecutors played for the jury wiretap recordings of Dawkins discussing payments for players and coaches and showed footage from hidden cameras of him introducing coaches to eager investors. But did his actions constitute a federal crime? The trial felt like an elaborate exercise in criminalizing a pawn in amateur basketball’s underground economy, a case study in who gets to have a financial stake in college athletes. Before Dawkins took the stand, Haney, his attorney, wondered why the government had brought this case before a jury at all.

“I’ve never heard of a case where something like this was brought in a federal courtroom,” Haney told me one day after court. “He never thought anything he was doing were federal crimes. Nobody has because nobody in the history of this country, to my understanding, has ever been prosecuted for bribing a basketball coach.”

“We have your playbook.”

That was the warning from William F. Sweeney, assistant director-in-charge of the FBI’s New York office, in September 2017, as he announced the arrests of 10 people, including Dawkins, as well as assistant coaches from USC, Auburn, Arizona, and Oklahoma State, and representatives from Adidas. Joon H. Kim, then the acting U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, described a scheme in which bribes were given to college coaches to steer players to advisers and managers, as well as payments funneled to the families of players to attend certain universities. The news sent shock waves through the sport; how many programs, coaches, and players would become embroiled in the scandal?

Kim said the alleged conduct “sullied the spirit of amateur athletics, but showed contempt for the thousands of players and coaches who follow the rules and play the game the right way.” The government’s intent was clear from the outset: The arrests were meant to be a warning. The federal government was targeting those who don’t adhere to NCAA bylaws.

Dawkins’s involvement in the investigation stemmed from his association with Louis Martin Blazer, a former financial adviser from Pittsburgh, who agreed to fund Dawkins’s fledgling management company if Dawkins would bring players to him as potential clients. Blazer introduced Dawkins to an investor who wanted to give money to Dawkins to bribe coaches to gain influence with players. Unbeknownst to Dawkins, Blazer was cooperating with the FBI, having pleaded guilty to securities fraud, among other charges, and the investor was an undercover FBI agent. Blazer testified for the prosecution in Dawkins’s trial.

At the heart of Dawkins’s defense was his contention that he never sought to bribe coaches; it was Blazer and the undercover agent who pursued the idea. His intent was to get money in the hands of players and their families. He thought bribing coaches was counterproductive to his business interests. “At the time the players get to the college campuses, the deals are usually already done,” Dawkins testified. “It’s no need to pay a college coach because these players are coming into college with agents. This isn’t—this whole idea that this is an amateur world is not real.”

At times, the two-week trial felt like an exhibition of the most effective way to circumvent NCAA rules. At one point, prosecutors played a recording of a phone call between Dawkins and former Arizona assistant coach Emanuel “Book” Richardson in which they discussed how head coach Sean Miller was paying Wildcats center Deandre Ayton, who would be the no. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA draft, $10,000 per month while he was enrolled at the university. (Miller has denied making any payments to players; last week, Arizona confirmed an NCAA investigation into its basketball program is underway.)

During Blazer’s testimony, he described how he made payments to college football players from 2000 through 2013-14 in an attempt to secure them as clients when they turned professional. In one instance, he said he gave $10,000 to the family of a Penn State player at the direction of an assistant coach to convince the player to remain in school rather than enter the NFL draft. The player, Blazer testified, wound up leaving school and was selected with the 11th overall pick in the 2009 draft. That matches the description of Aaron Maybin, a former Nittany Lions defensive end. Maybin was surprised when I told him he came up in the trial. He told me he’d never met Blazer. “He is a nobody,” he said.

Maybin, a teacher and organizer in Baltimore, said that Dawkins’s trial is a reminder of how college athletes are exploited. “The second somebody tries to come around and try to find a way to provide for the actual student themselves, or their families who a lot of the times are struggling, they get vilified,” he says. “They get criminalized and prosecuted. It’s extremely unfair and indicative of a deeper problem in the system itself.”

The economic value of elite college athletes is staggering. A 2011 Drexel University study found that the average Division I basketball player had an annual fair-market value worth $265,000, excluding potential endorsement deals. The highest-profile players were worth as much as $1 million. But there isn’t widespread support for paying college athletes. A March 2015 Marist Poll found that 65 percent of Americans don’t think college athletes should be compensated. There’s a stark discrepancy in these attitudes along racial lines. A 2014 Cooperative Congressional Election Study said more than half of black citizens polled were in favor of paying athletes, whereas only 22 percent of white respondents approved. The study concluded that when white people believe policies prominently assist black people, their perceptions about those policies shift. Questions about college athletes inherently conjured images of the black athlete for the typical white consumer.

Dawkins’s trial provided a real-time examination of the hypocrisy of college athletics. Tyran Steward, a professor and postdoctoral fellow at Carleton College who focuses on race, labor, and conservatism in college sports, thinks the government’s choice to cast Dawkins as an unscrupulous actor distracts from the more important issue, which is how the NCAA operates, and the victims of the collegiate-athletic complex.

“Rather than look at these incidents or the problems rampant in college sports as systemic, we want to frame them as the result of certain individuals,” Steward said. “What you see is punishment meted out to make this one person the face of something that Christian Dawkins did not create and problems that will continue to persist beyond Christian Dawkins.”

Christian Dawkins arrives to court in New York on Tuesday, March 5, 2019.
AP Photo/Seth Wenig

Dawkins’s trial was not just about how the rest of his life will turn out. It also raises broader questions about how college basketball should operate. In March, Senator Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut) commissioned reports about paying college athletes. Murphy watched prodigy Zion Williamson’s shoe explode during a Duke-UNC game, which led him to question how it is possible that athletes can labor for these institutions without profit.

Murphy considers it a “civil rights issue.” Addressing the issue of compensation will not eliminate the issues on display in Dawkins’s trial, but more fairness in the system might help alleviate some of them. When the government puts a man like Dawkins on trial, Murphy said, it highlights how pernicious the problem has become.

“These court cases are a window into how convoluted and complicated the existing system of both above-the-table and under-the-table reimbursement is,” he said. “These coaches have created these [immovable] structures to get paid. So cry me a river about the relatively small amount of work we have to do to pay kids above the table. These coaches and shoe companies and TV networks have created hypercomplex systems so that they can all get rich.”

In its closing remarks, the prosecution countered Dawkins’s testimony by questioning his credibility. The jury was shown a presentation titled “Dawkins’s Lies” that highlighted portions of his testimony. Assistant U.S. Attorney Noah Solowiejczyk told the jury that Dawkins had tried to play them for fools. “He tried to talk his way out of this,” he said. “That’s what he does. He cheats and he lies to get ahead.”

Haney returned to his message from his opening remarks. He told the jury the government’s case was ill conceived. “Ladies and gentlemen, I submit to you all this case has no soul.” Haney said that Dawkins was unfairly targeted, that the case was “manufactured” through a sting operation. “Bribery?!” he yelled. “You got to be kidding me!”

“Christian Dawkins,” he said, “is in a fight for his life, and he’s still in that fight right now to clear his name, to fight for his freedom and his liberty.”

On Wednesday, after three days of deliberation, the jury announced its verdict. Dawkins was found guilty on two charges: bribery and conspiracy to commit bribery. Merl Code, who did not testify, was found guilty on one charge of conspiracy to commit bribery. Dawkins’s appeal to a sense of injustice in the NCAA’s system was insufficient. His defense was always a long shot, but Haney took heart that the jury convicted on just two of the six charges Dawkins faced. “The jury spoke loudly,” Haney told me via text. It was “not a resounding defeat in our eyes. It offers us some degree of satisfaction. To be honest, that’s a victory in” the Southern District of New York.

A New York Times headline labeled Dawkins as “the Most Honest Man in College Basketball.” That’s not entirely true. The dishonesty of the sport’s marketplace was laid bare during the trial. Dawkins operated in defiance of a system hellbent on keeping players broke. He sought to profit off of athletes; he played the game and lost. But if the evidence presented during this trial constitutes a crime, then how many figures in the sport would be found guilty of similar offenses? It seems naive to believe basketball’s power brokers would face the force of the United States government in the way Dawkins has.

Almost two years after the charges were announced, the government doesn’t have much to show for its efforts aside from the convictions of a few low-level players like Dawkins and Code. No college head coach has faced charges; only former Louisville coach Rick Pitino has lost his job. It’s hard to imagine that this trial will have much of an impact when it comes to compensating players. As it stands, it feels like a victory for those who enrich themselves on the black boys hustling on America’s courts, preserving what Tyran Steward calls the “racial capitalism” on which the NCAA thrives. Dawkins had to be punished because he threatened the economic model of college athletics. He was an enemy to the prevailing idea that black labor must remain unpaid.

“What you’ll have is a way for the NCAA to tout a victory, a way for college sports to do the same and the federal government—which has created this space in which the NCAA can exploit free black labor in the way it does—to come out on top,” Steward said. “They’ve ridden college sports of another individual who they believe has taken away from this otherwise very clean game that everyone should play for the pure love of it.”

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