So when the time came for Tugs to go to college, his father wasn’t surprised when a family friend acting as a quasi-agent told him of even more money to be made: offers ranging as high as $150,000 from Texas, Creighton, Arizona and Oklahoma State. Bowen Sr. decided his son should attend Louisville, he testified, because the school’s under-the-table offer was competitive — $100,000, provided by Adidas — and also because he felt Coach Rick Pitino and his team provided the best basketball fit to set up Tugs to be a top NBA draft pick.
Bowen Sr.’s testimony late Thursday in federal court in New York capped the first week of a trial that is delivering on its promise to offer an unprecedented view into the black market that has surrounded youth and college basketball in America for decades. It also foreshadowed the sustained headaches the case probably will cause in college athletic departments across the country this month, with each new witness and piece of evidence carrying the potential to prompt an NCAA enforcement investigation.
According to a person close to NCAA enforcement who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak, federal authorities have asked the NCAA to hold off on any investigations related to the Justice Department probe until the conclusion of the last trial, which could come as late as summer 2019. Four college assistants are scheduled to stand separate trials next spring, and federal authorities could bring charges against others not yet arrested.
“We are closely monitoring the trial of three individuals charged with corruption in college basketball,” NCAA spokeswoman Stacey Osburn said Friday in a statement. “If information relevant to potential NCAA violations is uncovered, we will continue to follow up and investigate all the facts.”
'It's a corrupt space'
From the beginning of opening statements Tuesday morning, it quickly became clear that, as the judge explained to jurors, this will not be a “whodunit” like the ones they see on television.
The prosecution and the defense mostly agree on the core facts of the case: Two Adidas officials and an aspiring NBA agent arranged payments for the families of top college basketball recruits, a violation of NCAA amateurism rules. Where the sides disagree, however, is on whether breaking NCAA rules is a federal crime.
To the prosecution, the Adidas officials and the would-be agent defrauded colleges, causing them to dole out scholarships to players who were ineligible to play college basketball under NCAA rules, because their families had profited from their athletic talents. The three men, assistant U.S. Attorney Eli Mark told jurors, broke “the cardinal rule . . . the most fundamental rule in college basketball: that you can’t pay to play.”
“This is what corruption in college basketball looks like,” Mark said. “When you lie, cheat and deceive in order to get a college to issue financial aid, that is a crime.”
The defense maintains their clients were trying to right a wrong created by antiquated amateurism rules.
“NCAA rules were broken. . . . That happened. . . . But the NCAA’s rules are not the laws of this country,” said Casey Donnelly, attorney for Adidas executive Jim Gatto, whose opening argument highlighted the vast sums pouring into college basketball and those who run it: more than $1 billion each year to the NCAA, $45 million last year for Louisville from its basketball team and $7 million to Pitino last year, before he was fired.
“Merl knew that most of the families of these phenomenally talented young athletes didn’t have a whole lot of money,” said Mark Moore, attorney for former Nike and Adidas consultant Merl Code.
The lawyer for Christian Dawkins, the aspiring NBA agent who is a friend of the Bowens, acknowledged his client paid Bowen’s father and helped negotiate the Adidas deal in the hope that Tugs would sign Dawkins as his agent if he made it to the NBA.
“He gave a lifelong family friend money, hoping that one day that family would repay the favor. . . . He thought, in his mind, he was helping everyone,” attorney Steve Haney said. “There was no intention of cheating or defrauding anyone.”
The trial has offered an unvarnished view of why shoe companies Nike, Adidas and Under Armour sponsor youth leagues. In a sting meeting with undercover FBI agents, Code, the longtime Nike consultant then working with Adidas, explained the value shoe companies see in sponsoring leagues that attract top teenage talent: Keeping those players wearing the brand in high school and college — even if it requires the help of consultants negotiating the occasional illicit payment — is worth it to retain the select few that make it to the NBA.
“That’s the ultimate objective. . . . If I could have these kids in my umbrella at the grass-roots level, and I can now funnel those kids to my sponsor schools, I win. . . . My colleges win, and then, hopefully, I can sign them as pros,” Code said in a hotel suite in June 2017 in New York, with two FBI agents posing as investors in a sports agency.
Later on, Code joked about how often a deal on the basketball black market falls through, and there’s no recourse for the person who made the payments but didn’t get a player, because admitting involvement risks banishment from the NCAA.
“I’m surprised there aren’t more murders,” Code told the undercover agents. “It’s a corrupt space.”
Tugs Bowen entered that space in 2015, overseen by his father, a then-47-year-old retired police officer getting by on a disability pension. For a time, Tugs Bowen played for a local travel team in Saginaw, Mich., on the Under Armour youth circuit managed by Dawkins, a then-22-year-old family friend.
In 2015, Bowen Sr. testified, Dawkins approached him with a suggestion: He should consider having his 16-year-old son play for a different youth team, the Michigan Mustangs, sponsored by Adidas. The reason?
“It was a good circuit . . . and there was money to be made for me,” Bowen Sr. said. “Adidas would pay me.”
They made the change, and Adidas delivered the money, in installments, over the next year. Bowen Sr. described one such transaction, involving current Adidas executive Chris Rivers, in the parking lot after a basketball tournament.
Bowen Sr. said Rivers took him over to his car and handed him roughly $4,000 in cash.
“He just said, ‘Thank you,” Bowen Sr. testified.
A federal prosecutor then introduced a piece of evidence to the jury and displayed it for the courtroom: a check, written by Rivers, to Bowen Sr. for $2,000. In the memo, Rivers wrote: “Staff Help.”
“Did you ever provide any staff help for Adidas?” the prosecutor asked.
“Did you ever provide any staff help for Chris Rivers?”
Rivers, who until last year oversaw Adidas youth basketball, has not been charged with a crime and has not replied to several voice mails and emails this year seeking comment, and Adidas has declined to comment. According to two people in Adidas youth basketball who requested anonymity, Rivers has been on administrative leave since Gatto, his boss, was arrested in September 2017.
After a year on the Adidas circuit, Tugs decided to switch to Meanstreets, a Nike team based in Chicago, which paid Bowen Sr. $5,000 to $8,000, he testified. Bowen Sr. testified he turned down a higher offer from another Nike team — $18,000 from Spiece Indy Heat — because he felt the coaches wouldn’t develop his son as well.
No Nike officials have been charged with a crime in connection with the Justice Department investigation. Managers for Meanstreets and Spiece Indy Heat did not reply to requests to comment Friday.
When Tugs played for La Lumiere private high school in Indiana, Bowen Sr. testified, basketball coach Shane Heirman — referred to as “Sugar Shane” in text messages between Bowen Sr. and Dawkins — paid him $2,000 a month. Heirman is now an assistant at DePaul, and in a statement, the school said it had not heard from law enforcement or the NCAA regarding the allegations involving Heirman but would cooperate if contacted.
As the offers from other shoe companies and their teams for Tugs came in, Bowen Sr. testified, Dawkins continued to serve as a go-between, a role that, in the basketball black market, is commonly referred to as a “handler.” The sums of money Dawkins discussed, according to Bowen Sr., increased substantially when the college offers started: an undisclosed amount for housing from Texas; $50,000 from Arizona; $100,000 from Creighton; and $150,000 cash, $8,000 for a car and an undisclosed amount for housing from Oklahoma State.
The Texas athletic department said it had conducted a review of its basketball staff and "did not find any information that substantiates" the claim made by Bowen Sr." A spokesman for the Oklahoma State athletic department, citing an ongoing inquiry into the allegations, declined to comment. The other schools Bowen Sr. named did not respond to requests to comment, and Bowen Sr. acknowledged in his testimony he had no supporting evidence outside of Dawkins's words that the offers were legitimate. But one offer has been corroborated by those who arranged it: $100,000, from Adidas, to get Tugs to play at Louisville.
Bowen Sr. testified under an immunity agreement: Prosecutors have agreed not to charge him with a crime in connection with this case. According to the Justice Department's theory of the case, Bowen Sr. is a co-conspirator on the fraud charges against the others because he also did not inform Louisville officials of the money he was getting from Adidas. When the trial resumes Tuesday, Bowen Sr. will return to the stand for more questioning by prosecutors and then cross-examination by the three defense attorneys.
Over the course of the first three days, the defense lawyers repeatedly attempted, without success, to introduce evidence that showed a five-star recruit such as Tugs generates millions in revenue for colleges and that NCAA rules regarding shoe company money flowing to families aren't as clear cut as federal prosecutors have claimed. The attempts brought frequent objections from the prosecution, and Judge Lewis Kaplan mostly sided with the prosecutors.
During one such exchange, Kaplan told an attorney for Gatto, "Good luck in the court of appeals with that one."