RALEIGH, N.C. >> A federal fraud and bribery scandal shaking college basketball has led to a key question of what will happen to recruits who received money linked to attending certain schools.
It could mean the permanent loss of college eligibility for some players for violating a core NCAA rule prohibiting improper benefits. But there’s also the chance that some ineligible players could go through the NCAA’s reinstatement process and eventually play after sitting out some games.
“Some of them will possibly not play depending on how large the benefits or inducements were,” said Michael L. Buckner, a Florida-based attorney who has worked on infractions cases. “Others, it’s going to impact them some, some of them may have to be withheld (from games). But I think overall, they’re going to have that stigma that they were involved in this fraud and corruption scandal.”
The case went public Tuesday, with federal prosecutors announcing that 10 men — including a top Adidas executive and four assistant coaches at power-conference programs — were charged with using hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes to influence star athletes’ choice of schools, shoe sponsors and agents.
Prosecutors also said at least three top high school recruits were promised payments of as much as $150,000, using money from Adidas, to attend two universities sponsored by the company. Court papers didn’t name those schools but contained enough details to identify them as Louisville and Miami.
Prosecutors have made it clear that the investigation is ongoing, too, meaning it could widen in scope. And that has Don Jackson, an Alabama-based attorney who has worked on numerous college eligibility cases, saying the case is “going to break new ground.”
Consider: NCAA guidelines for improper benefits violations of at least $700 recommend an athlete sit out at least 30 percent of the season and repay the value to charity as conditions for reinstatement.
“Those rules are out of the window of this case,” Jackson said, “because no one ever envisioned a $100,000 benefit.”
The scandal has led Louisville — already on probation for violations tied to an escort’s allegations that she and other escorts were hired to have sex parties and strip for recruits and players — to put Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino and athletic director Tom Jurich on administrative leave . Pitino wasn’t named in the complaints released by prosecutors.
One of the coaches arrested, Oklahoma State assistant Lamont Evans, was fired Thursday. He is accused of taking $2,000 a month in bribes to funnel athletes to certain agents.
In addition, Louisville interim president Greg Postel said Wednesday that one student-athlete has been informed he will not practice or play for the university until the investigation is resolved. Postel and court documents didn’t name the athlete but the complaint had enough details to make clear investigators were referring to 6-foot-7 freshman Brian Bowen.
The process typically requires a school to declare an athlete ineligible pending an investigation into a concern, then go to the NCAA’s Committee on Student-Athlete Reinstatement. Improper benefits violations of at least $100-$200 can lead to athletes being held out of games, with the suspension growing as the value increases.
Jackson said there are plenty of variables in that process, such as an athlete being unaware a family member took payments, that leave openings for each athlete to salvage his playing eligibility. There’s also the possibility that the NCAA could offer an athlete limited immunity in exchange for full cooperation in its own investigation separate from the federal probe, which could allow him to play college basketball at another school.
“If the student-athlete received money, knew it was a violation and accepted it anyway, it’s more likely that he could be sanctioned in a potentially harsh way,” Jackson said. “And if he lies about it, then he’s going to be charged with … an unethical-conduct charge, which could render him permanently ineligible.”
Buckner said the burden also falls on school compliance staffers to go back and review the recruitment of high-profile prospects who have arrived on campus or any other athletes with connections to the people named in the criminal complaints.
“Now that it’s been nationally publicized, all schools are under notice now,” Buckner said.
“What’s sad is for these young men who are just starting off their journey toward being men, that they’ve been led astray by adults in their lives,” Buckner said. “Whether it be families, their coaches, agents, apparel representatives, anyone that was involved in this alleged corruption and fraud – they’ve led these young men down the wrong path.”