NEW YORK — When the trial of two Adidas officials and an aspiring NBA agent accused of defrauding colleges by secretly paying the families of top basketball recruits began last week, defense attorneys tried to put NCAA amateurism rules on trial.
Casey Donnelly, attorney for Adidas executive Jim Gatto, argued in her opening statement that her client was just doing his job, helping top Adidas college teams land star recruits, and suggested evidence would show Nike and Under Armour officials arranging similar payments. Furthermore, Donnelly pointed out, college basketball is a multimillion dollar entertainment industry whose entertainers are barred from getting paid, while their coaches make millions and the NCAA rakes in more than a billion dollars each year.
As the trial has progressed, however, Judge Lewis Kaplan has essentially prohibited that argument, by siding with prosecutors who have objected to any discussion of the broader economics of college sports, as well as any mention of similar illicit payments involving other schools and shoe companies. The judge’s stance, which culminated Thursday with two rulings, raises questions about where the defense will go from here, while also seemingly minimizing the chance the trial will produce bombshell revelations of NCAA violations at other major programs not already implicated.
On Thursday afternoon, Kaplan made his stance explicitly clear, as he chastised Gatto’s attorneys for attempts to highlight for the jury how much college coaches get paid, and the economic struggles of some of the families of star recruits.
“It doesn’t matter if they were the children of Bill Gates or welfare mothers,” Kaplan said. “The purpose of this trial is not to determine whether or not NCAA amateurism rules are good or bad. It is to determine whether or not federal statutes were violated. . . . I will not have it. I just won’t.”
A few hours later, Michael Schachter, another attorney for Gatto, began to ask former Adidas consultant T.J. Gassnola about his knowledge of attempts by a high school coach to solicit $150,000 from the shoe company in order to steer former Maryland center Diamond Stone to an Adidas-sponsored college team. Gatto apparently declined to make that payment, and Stone committed to Maryland, an Under Armour team.
Before Gassnola could answer, prosecutors objected, and Kaplan agreed with them, cutting off any questions about Stone and other players Gatto’s lawyers wanted to discuss. In explaining his reasoning, Kaplan termed it the “everyone’s-doing-it defense,” and said he would similarly reject the argument if it were made by people accused of insider trading, stock manipulation or organized crime.
“The guys in the five families are just doing their jobs, too, I suppose,” Kaplan said.
However, the judge left open one line of defense that could cause problems for the schools already implicated. Kaplan has allowed discussion of whether coaches or other officials at schools were aware of Adidas’s illicit recruiting assistance, which could undercut the prosecutors’ argument that the schools were defrauded. One North Carolina State assistant participated in a $40,000 payment to a recruit, according to Gassnola, and evidence has suggested two assistants at Louisville also paid the families of recruits, and one of them was aware of Adidas promising $100,000 to a recruit’s father.
Former Louisville Coach Rick Pitino has adamantly denied knowledge of his assistants, or Adidas, paying his recruits. His name has come up repeatedly, including in a wiretapped phone call between Merl Code, a former Adidas consultant, and Christian Dawkins, an aspiring NBA agent, who arranged the $100,000 deal for the father of recruit Brian Bowen.
“If you ask Rick Pitino if he knows what happened [with Bowen], he’d say he doesn’t know,” Code said on the recorded call.
“He probably doesn’t,” Dawkins replied.
“He does know some. He doesn’t know everything,” Code said. “Plausible deniability.”