There is some March Madness, after all
)“Nine out of 10 schools are cheating. The other one is in last place.” — Jerry Tarkanian
WASHINGTON — When Tark the Shark was basketball coach at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, 1973-1992, his win-loss record was 509-105, he took the Runnin’ Rebels to the NCAA’s Final Four four times and won the national championship in 1990. His refreshing refusal to obfuscate tells us that UNLV was not a 10th place school.
Those words ascribed to Tarkanian introduce HBO’s “The Scheme,” which airs Tuesday evening, when fans would have been anticipating the Final Four, if the coronavirus had not shuttered the college basketball industry. HBO’s documentary is a darkly hilarious story of government squandering resources to concoct preposterous crimes whose supposed victims are enriched by pretending to be oblivious to them. The victims are fabulously remunerated coaches and the universities that profit from unpaid “student athletes.”
HBO’s through-the-looking-glass tale revolves round Christian Dawkins, a now-27-year-old African American who is an almost admirable rascal as well as an unrepentant felon. Growing up in basketball-mad Saginaw, Michigan, he realized he was not NBA material so he decided to monetize his mania in college basketball’s netherworld. This is the meat market at the intersection of shoe companies (Nike, Adidas, Under Armour) and college basketball factories (e.g., Kansas, Louisville, North Carolina) that turn high school “blue chippers” into NBA prospects who hope to soon need agents, who will themselves become wealthy negotiating enormous NBA contracts.
An aspiring agent, Dawkins became a minor operator in the business of spotting rising stars, often in middle school or even before, and cultivating them and their families in order to grease, with shoe companies’ money, the path of such prodigies to certain universities. These are schools whose basketball and other athletic programs have multi-year contracts paying them to wear Adidas (Kansas, $196 million), Nike (Ohio State, $252 million) or Under Armour (UCLA, $280 million) stuff.
This racket revolving around tall and talented adolescents is relationship roulette: Many relationships fail, either because the player’s talent turns out to be insufficient, or because the player ditches one agent, who has gambled much time and money on him, for another agent. But one player who wins a giant contract is a jackpot that more than repays an agent’s investment in a dozen failures.
In one criminal trial, Dawkins was convicted of directing a recruit to a school that supposedly was “defrauded.” The prosecution’s theory was — seriously — that the school was a victim because the player, coveted by the school as a stupendous revenue generator, falsely attested to his amateur status after taking cash from Dawkins. So the school wasted a scholarship, which is sofa-cushion change compared with the apparel contracts and other basketball bonanzas. But the stern ethic is that schools and coaches may fill their pails from the Niagara of money, but never players. Dawkins declines to feel guilty about helping players and their families, often inner-city African Americans, get a thimbleful.
In another trial, Dawkins was convicted of bribing public officials: assistant coaches, whose quid pro quo was supposed to be that they would steer stars to Dawkins’s sports management business, after the stars had enriched the school. Public officials? Why, yes: Such is America’s devotion to higher education, in 40 states the highest-paid public employee works for a public university. He is a football or basketball coach.
LSU’s coach, Will Wade, and Arizona’s coach, Sean Miller, multi-millionaires who were wiretapped talking with Dawkins about recruiting, claim to barely know him. They prosper while he is appealing his sentence.
“The Scheme” details how the FBI rented a yacht in Manhattan and suites in Las Vegas where undercover agents encouraged the commission of crimes that are difficult to describe with a straight face. An FBI squad brandishing assault rifles crashed into a suite to encourage Dawkins to cooperate. He didn’t. After three years of investigations, two trials produced paltry results for the nation’s premier law enforcement agency and the legendarily potent federal prosecutors of the Southern District of New York, who evidently have no more urgent business.
Don’t blink during “The Scheme” because the jaw-dropping incidents unfold so fast that you might miss some dandies, such as “escorts” and strippers reportedly brought to a Louisville athletic dorm 22 times between 2010 and 2014. Although this perk supposedly astonished head coach Rick Pitino, it contributed to his being fired. This month, however, he was hired as coach at Iona, a Catholic college. There is some March Madness after all.
George Will’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
(c) 2020, Washington Post Writers Group