Three hats sat on the lectern, one each for Indiana, Kansas and Vanderbilt. Behind them, in a white dress shirt and multicolored bow tie, stood Romeo Langford, a soft-spoken 18-year-old considered one of the best high school basketball players in the country.
More than 2,500 people filled the gymnasium in New Albany, Ind., on April 30 to find out which college the 6-foot-6 guard would choose. Local television stations streamed the event live online, allowing thousands more to watch a series of speeches and an eight-minute biographical video — titled “Romeo: A Once In A Generation Player” — before Langford’s announcement.
“I will continue my education and basketball career at,” said Langford, who then moved his right hand briefly toward the black hat with a “V,” then picked up the crimson “IU” hat instead. Joyous screams nearly drowned out his voice as he finished his sentence, “Indiana University.”
As the crowd cheered, Langford’s father, Tim, stood behind him, holding up a red arm sleeve that featured the three-stripe logo of Adidas. It was a fitting gesture because, according to former Louisville coach Rick Pitino and three people in the apparel company’s youth basketball division, Adidas played a crucial role in giving its sponsored college teams — which include Indiana, Kansas and Louisville — a lift over the competition in Langford’s recruitment.
In early 2017, according to Pitino and sources at Adidas, the company won a much-less-publicized recruiting battle with Nike and Under Armour for Langford, whose father had made it known that he wanted to run his own youth basketball team featuring his son. Adidas, Nike and Under Armour each operate basketball leagues, which they use to develop relationships with high school prospects they hope to sign to endorsement deals if they reach the NBA, and to steer top talent to their sponsored college teams.
In January 2017, Pitino said, two Adidas officials met with him to discuss their efforts to keep Nike and Under Armour from landing Langford, whom Pitino was recruiting. Pitino’s account was supported by text messages he shared with The Washington Post for a previous story.
“The way they phrased it, it was [whichever shoe company] was going to pay the dad’s AAU program the most money, gets it,” Pitino said in a recent phone interview. A few days later, Adidas’s league added a new team: Twenty Two Vision, featuring Romeo Langford on the court and Tim Langford as team director. Shoe company sponsorships can reach $100,000 to $150,000, and team directors who limit expenses can pay themselves salaries from those amounts.
“That’s the way that world works,” Pitino said. “Which is completely legal, by the way.”
In a brief phone interview May 3, Tim Langford professed ignorance of the financial details of Adidas’s sponsorship of his team but adamantly denied taking any pay as team director and also denied the sponsorship had any influence on his son’s college decision. Kentucky, Duke and Vanderbilt, all Nike-sponsored programs, and UCLA, an Under Armour team, were all considered strong contenders at various points in Langford’s recruitment.
“It wasn’t about money for us. Our son . . . his time will come if he stays blessed and stays healthy,” said Tim Langford, who offered to connect a reporter with Jonathan Jeanty, a friend he said handled the finances for Twenty Two Vision. Neither Tim Langford nor Jeanty has responded to numerous phone calls, text messages and emails since. Officials with Adidas, Nike and Under Armour declined to comment.
Langford’s recruiting demonstrates the inextricable connections between apparel companies and college basketball programs, the subject of an ongoing Justice Department probe that has produced criminal charges against 10 men, including two Adidas officials who met with Pitino to discuss Langford.
Shoe companies paying family members of recruits through summer league teams inhabits a gray area in NCAA amateurism rules, which generally prohibit athletes and their families from profiting from their talents. To economists who’ve studied college sports, these arrangements — just like duffel bags full of cash delivered by agents and hundred-dollar handshakes from boosters — are just another ripple effect of NCAA rules that prevent highly valuable players from receiving anything more than a college scholarship.
“Even if you’re conservative in your math,” said David Berri, a professor of economics at Southern Utah University, “a player like this is worth well over a million.”
Langford’s name started appearing near the top of national recruiting rankings in 2016 when, as a sophomore, he averaged 30 points and led New Albany High to a state championship. Pitino started driving over from Louisville to watch Langford play, and New Albany’s principal bumped into Kentucky Coach John Calipari one day during a fire drill.
In Indiana, the 16-year-old became a celebrity. Season-ticket sales for New Albany nearly tripled. On the road, Langford generated sellouts and often stayed long after games ended, signing autographs and posing for photos.
“A lot of people were glad to have us on their schedule, because we’d help with their budgets,” New Albany Coach Jim Shannon said.
Adidas took notice. The company offered to sponsor New Albany basketball — the school had never had a shoe deal, Shannon said — and Adidas executives quickly grew concerned that their rivals would try to steal Langford from EG10, the Indianapolis team he played for on the Adidas circuit.
In February 2016, according to Pitino’s phone records, he texted Adidas global basketball marketing director Jim Gatto about Langford. Another Adidas official had met with Langford, and Pitino had heard the official had been pushing UCLA, then an Adidas-sponsored team. (UCLA signed a new deal with Under Armour months later.)
“Hey Jim one of your guys . . . is helping UCLA in recruiting can u just make sure he doesn’t hurt Louisville — came in to see one of our top prospects to keep him with Adidas circuit but he asked Romeos guy to get him to visit UCLA . . . Prospect is Romeo Langford,” Pitino texted.
“Understood. I will check on it,” Gatto replied.
Gatto, who faces charges as part of the Justice Department probe, declined to comment through his attorney.
That summer, Langford played his second season for EG10, run by Eric Gordon Sr., father of former Indiana star and Houston Rockets guard Eric Gordon. Gordon Sr. declined to comment.
After the season, a coach considered close to Langford left EG10. Unbeknown to EG10 management, according to two sources close to the team, the coach had been soliciting kickbacks from tournament promoters in exchange for agreeing to bring EG10 and Langford. A few months later, Adidas officials expressed renewed concern to Pitino that they could lose Langford.
On Jan. 25, 2017, Gatto texted Pitino to let him know he’d be attending an upcoming Louisville game against North Carolina State, another Adidas team. Three days later, Pitino said, he met briefly on campus with Gatto and T.J. Gassnola, an Adidas consultant. The subject: Langford.
“They knew that Nike and Under Armour were going to make a run for him,” Pitino said. “I didn’t want him going to Nike or Under Armour . . . because then he would’ve gone to Kentucky or somewhere else. . . . I would’ve had no chance.”
The men told Pitino that another Adidas executive — Chris Rivers, a veteran of shoe company recruiting battles who previously worked at Reebok — was in close contact with Langford’s father. Pitino said neither Gatto nor Gassnola discussed illicit cash payments but rather the possibility Adidas would have to outbid Nike and Under Armour for Tim Langford’s new team.
“Gassnola and Gatto both knew, if they ever mentioned anything illegal with me, paying a kid, that would be the end of the conversation, and Adidas would no longer represent the University of Louisville,” Pitino said.
Last month, an indictment unsealed in New York accused Gatto of approving a $40,000 payment to the father of an N.C. State recruit, and $90,000 to the mother of a Kansas recruit. According to the indictment, the transactions were carried out by Gassnola, who is cooperating with prosecutors and has pleaded guilty to wire fraud conspiracy. Gassnola’s attorney has not responded to numerous requests to comment.
In January 2017, at a meeting of Adidas team directors in Las Vegas, basketball division executive Rivers addressed a subject that annoyed some in the room: Langford’s new team.
Spots in Adidas’s gold division — its top youth league, with the best teams and the most lucrative sponsorships — are highly competitive, usually reserved for teams with a track record of identifying top college and professional prospects.
“We want to keep him, and we’re going to do what it takes to keep him,” Rivers said, according to one person in the room that day. Two others corroborated this account. Adidas officials declined to make Rivers available for an interview.
That same month, a Twitter account was created for a new summer league team: Twenty Two Vision.
“To develop youth who excel on the court, in the classroom, and positively impact our communities,” the account’s profile reads. There was no mention of Romeo Langford, but the team name seemed prescient: 22 was Langford’s favorite jersey number before high school, according to Shannon, and he decided to wear No. 1 only because another player had the number.
Within days, Twenty Two Vision announced it had secured a coveted spot in Adidas’s gold division. A few weeks later, its Twitter account celebrated a recruiting coup: Romeo Langford was joining the team. There was no mention of Tim Langford’s involvement.
While some Adidas programs field teams at multiple age levels, from 13U (where players are 13 and under) to 17U (the top circuit, where players are 17 and younger), Twenty Two Vision fielded only a 17U team last year. According to four current and former Adidas team directors, fielding one 17U team last year — which included travel and lodging at events in Las Vegas, Atlanta, Dallas and Spartanburg, S.C. — probably cost $50,000 to $75,000. Any amount Adidas paid Twenty Two Vision above that could have been kept as salary for those who managed the team.
In his interview with The Post, Tim Langford said Adidas sent the check for Twenty Two Vision to Jeanty, a family friend who set up a nonprofit foundation to take the money.
Jeanty, a Louisville native, is a physical trainer who works at Legends Athletic Training, a basketball training company run by Kenneth Dion Lee, a former college basketball player who has trained Romeo Langford since he was in elementary school.
When Lee played at Northwestern in the 1990s, he was arrested for his involvement in a point-shaving scheme; he ultimately reached a plea agreement and was sentenced to a month in federal prison. In a phone interview, Lee said he had no involvement with Twenty Two Vision and no knowledge of how much money Adidas paid for the team.
Twenty Two Vision’s Facebook page lists a Louisville P.O. Box as its address. A search of Kentucky business records registered to that P.O. Box shows a nonprofit: the Family United Foundation, which was incorporated Jan. 24, 2017, days before Twenty Two Vision came into existence. Jeanty incorporated the foundation, records show. Among the foundation’s directors are Tim Langford and Tisha Langford, Romeo’s older sister.
There are no other public records associated with the Family United Foundation, according to the Kentucky Attorney General’s Office, and the organization has not had to file a public financial disclosure form with the IRS yet.
If Twenty Two Vision created a financial windfall for those involved, it hasn’t emerged in their visible spending habits.
Jeanty has not purchased any real estate in Louisville, property records show. The Langford family lives in the same modest rental home in New Albany where it has been since at least 2014, when Tim and his wife, Sabrina, filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, according to court records, because of spiraling credit card and hospital bills.
Tim Langford then was making about $52,000 per year as a warehouse specialist for a beverage company, court records show, while Sabrina Langford made about $25,000 annually as a system coordinator at a hospital. They exited bankruptcy in May 2015, agreeing to pay back more than $21,000 they owed over the next 4½ years.
The NCAA has issued seemingly contradictory rulings over the years when confronted with relationships between players’ parents and shoe company-sponsored youth teams.
This past season, the NCAA found no problems with the relationship between Nike and Marvin Bagley Jr., father of likely 2018 NBA draft lottery pick Marvin Bagley III. When Bagley III was 16 and establishing himself as one of the top prospects in the country, Nike agreed to sponsor his youth team, coached and managed by Bagley’s father. In 2016, Bagley Jr. acknowledged in an interview with Sports Illustrated that the Nike sponsorship was the family’s main source of income. This past school year, Bagley III played his only college season at Duke, a Nike-sponsored school, and he is widely expected to sign an endorsement deal with the company.
In 2010, however, the NCAA suspended Renardo Sidney, a Mississippi State player, in part because his father couldn’t properly account for money spent from a Reebok-sponsored foundation connected to his youth team.
The NCAA declined a request to clarify its rules pertaining to shoe company money and summer league teams run by parents of top recruits.
“They’re not going to give you a definitive answer, because they don’t have one. There’s no difference, fundamentally, between what Renardo Sidney was suspended over . . . and what happened with Bagley,” said Don Jackson, the Alabama attorney who represented Sidney.
To attorney Steve Haney, who represents one of the men arrested as part of the Justice Department probe, the differing rulings underscore the central role that NCAA rules — criticized by some as outdated and exploitative — play in the criminal investigation.
Haney’s client, Christian Dawkins, faces wire fraud charges, in part over accusations he brokered a $100,000 deal between Adidas and the father of a recruit to steer his son to Louisville. According to federal prosecutors in New York, Dawkins defrauded Louisville, which could have faced financial penalties from the NCAA over the arrangement.
“Apparel companies funding the AAU programs for top prospects’ families is absolutely no different than what is charged in this case,” Haney said. “Hundreds of thousands of dollars are being funneled from shoe companies through parent-run AAU teams to influence kids’ college choices, and that is somehow deemed NCAA-compliant.”
In April, the Adidas circuit opened its 2018 campaign, with events in Dallas, Indianapolis, Los Angeles and D.C. One prominent team from last season was missing.
On April 6, Twenty Two Vision announced via Twitter it would not compete this year.
“We hope to continue the vision in the future,” the tweet said.
Chuck Culpepper contributed from New Albany. Steven Rich contributed from Washington.