A bribery scandal that has shaken the world of college basketball took a step into college football Tuesday, with the courtroom testimony of a key government informant. According to multiple reports, he claimed to have given cash over a period of many years to football players from Alabama, Michigan, North Carolina, Northwestern, Notre Dame, Penn State and Pittsburgh.
The informant, Louis Martin “Marty” Blazer, was testifying in the federal trial of Christian Dawkins, an aspiring agent, and Merl Code, a basketball coach and shoe-company consultant. It is the second of three trials resulting from arrests in 2017 as part of a sweeping FBI probe into corruption in college basketball, a scandal that has rocked a number of hoops programs, including at Louisville, where decorated coach Rick Pitino was fired.
The probe began with the 2014 arrest of Blazer, a financial adviser to several professional athletes, for allegedly embezzling millions from clients so he could invest in movie and music projects. He agreed to become a cooperating witness, wearing a wire, allowing his phone to be bugged and helping a pair of undercover FBI agents pose as investors who wanted to help Dawkins get his nascent agency off the ground.
Dawkins is accused of giving college basketball coaches, introduced to him by Code, envelopes stuffed with cash to encourage them to recommend his services to their players. “This is a case about money, bribes and college basketball,” assistant U.S. attorney Eli Mark said.
To the surprise of some covering the proceedings, it also turned into a case about college football. Blazer explained Tuesday that he was able to land several NFL players as clients in part because, between 2000 and 2013, he paid so many highly regarded football players while they were still amateur athletes at programs including the powerhouse Crimson Tide, Fighting Irish and Wolverines.
Blazer testified, per reports, that his strategy involved paying players anywhere from $100 to $3,000 per month, often directly with cash but occasionally by other means.
“I would send Western Union funds to their girlfriend or friend or family member,” said Blazer, 49 (via the Arizona Daily Star). “That person would pick it up and I would confirm that they got it.”
Blazer said that in 2008-09, an unnamed Penn State assistant coach concerned that a star player was considering declaring for the NFL draft connected Blazer with the player’s father. Blazer said he gave the father a check for $10,000, with the coach hoping the payment would dispel some of the player’s financial motivations for possibly turning pro.
“The coach wanted the player to consider staying,” Blazer said (via CBS Sports). “The player was leaning on coming out.”
The player, Blazer said, entered the draft anyway, and after becoming the 11th pick in 2009, his father paid back the $10,000. The 11th pick that year was Penn State pass-rusher Aaron Maybin, selected by the Buffalo Bills.
“Penn State has just been made aware of this concerning allegation” and “will thoroughly examine this matter,” the university said in a statement Tuesday (via PennLive). “Until we know more, we can’t comment further.”
In addition, Blazer described the assistant coach as the father of an NFL player, leading Dan Weztel of Yahoo Sports to surmise that the Penn State staffer must have been Larry Johnson Sr., now an assistant with Ohio State. When reached by Wetzel, Johnson expressed shock at Blazer’s allegation, saying, “That is absolutely false. I would never, ever ask anybody to do that. That is not me.”
Other schools reacting to the testimony Tuesday included Notre Dame and Northwestern. “Notre Dame is unaware of the misconduct Blazer alleged today,” a school spokesman said (via the Tribune). “We highly prize ethical conduct and will seek to determine if Blazer or anyone else sought to compromise any of our students in that regard.”
A Northwestern spokesperson said that school was “not aware of any misconduct related to this report; however, we take any allegation seriously and actively investigate.” The spokesperson added, “Our university and the department of athletics and recreation are committed to exercising the highest ethical and professional standards, as well as upholding all NCAA rules and regulations.”
Blazer also testified that he “went down to North Carolina and developed relationships and started paying these guys,” adding, “I wasn’t the only one paying them. There were other agents involved.”
He cited an unnamed Tar Heels football player he said he paid who also went on to become a first-round pick in 2009, by the Giants. New York drafted North Carolina wide receiver Hakeem Nicks 29th overall that year.
In 2012, the NCAA placed the Tar Heels on three years’ probation and banned them from competing in a bowl game for, among other infractions, impermissible agent benefits. As part of self-imposed penalties before that decision, North Carolina chose to vacate all 16 of its wins in 2008 and 2009.
While entering a guilty plea in 2017 to federal charges including securities fraud, wire fraud and aggravated identity theft, Blazer admitted a role in the Tar Heels scandal, telling the court (via ESPN) he “made various payments to college athletes while they were student-athletes to pursue them to hire me as their investment adviser when they finished their college athletic careers.” He was eventually sentenced to a maximum of 67 years in prison, and on Tuesday he said he hoped his work as a cooperating witness would result in “something much less” than that.
Blazer insisted Tuesday that he only paid players and not coaches, unlike the allegations against Dawkins. Attorneys for Dawkins and Code asserted that their clients resisted the plan proposed to them by Blazer and the undercover FBI agents to bribe coaches.
In the first trial, Dawkins and Code were convicted on charges related to bribing coveted high school players and their families to sign with certain colleges associated with Adidas. The two men were sentenced in March to six months each in prison, with former Adidas executive James Gatto getting sentenced to nine months, and all three have filed appeals.
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