In ‘The Scheme,’ Christian Dawkins says NCAA rules are made to be broken

There is a moment near the end of “The Scheme,” HBO’s documentary that debuted Tuesday night about Christian Dawkins—one of the central figures in a three-year Justice Department investigation of college basketball corruption—when Dawkins emphasizes he has no problem with coaches who arrange secret cash payments for recruits.

“Any coach who offers to pay a player is, in my opinion, a good guy,” Dawkins said. “I think the coaches who are not willing to help out their players are not good people.”

This is why Dawkins never became a snitch, his lawyer Steve Haney explains, and help prosecutors build cases against coaches including Arizona’s Sean Miller and LSU’s Will Wade in exchange for a lighter sentence.

“He wanted to go down with his place in history as a guy that had an opportunity, really, to throw the world under the bus in college basketball, and the community, and he chose not to,” Haney says.

These are unusual statements to make, given that they come in a documentary whose climactic moments involve Dawkins accusing Miller and Wade of paying players and then lying about it, as he walks the audience through wiretapped phone calls he had with both coaches.

Originally timed to debut during an NCAA tournament, which was canceled due to the novel coronavirus, “The Scheme” purports to tell, according to HBO promotional materials, “the revealing, no-holds-barred tale of Christian Dawkins and how the 25-year-old wound up at the center of the biggest criminal case in collegiate sports history.”

The two-hour film offers Dawkins’ most detailed explanation to date of how, as a high school graduate from Saginaw, Mich., he forged a career as a recruiter for a top NBA agent and later tried to open his own agency funded, unbeknown to him, by undercover FBI agents trying to catch coaches taking bribes and paying for players.

But much like the lengthy investigation that eventually resulted in the convictions of Dawkins, two Adidas officials, and four assistant college coaches on fraud charges, “The Scheme” fails to deliver much in the way of bombshell revelations to anyone familiar with how college basketball recruiting works. The accusations against Miller and Wade—which both have adamantly denied—have circulated in prior news reports. The bulk of the rest of the documentary, essentially, is an expanded version of Dawkins’ defense he gave on the stand during a trial last year, portraying himself as something of a modern-day, business-savvy Robin Hood, one of the good guys in the shadow economy that’s a byproduct of the amateurism rules that govern college basketball.

“The moral of the story is, ‘F— the NCAA,'” Dawkins says with a smile. “How about that?”

The story that Dawkins tells is overly rosy at points, however, exaggerating his professional accomplishments while leaving out inconvenient truths.

Before he unwittingly got involved with an undercover FBI agent who wanted to bribe college coaches, Dawkins states, he was an agent, doing deals for NBA players, a claim even his lawyer refutes.

“Agent, junior agent, whatever you want to call it,” Dawkins says when asked for his role at ASM, a top agency where he used to work.

“No, Christian at ASM was a runner,” Haney says seconds later. “He was the guy that was out recruiting; he was a relationship guy . . . a manager, I guess, would be a nice way of calling it, but a runner is probably the more appropriate term in the industry.”

And while Dawkins repeatedly talks in the documentary about “paying players,” as the evidence and testimony produced by the Justice Department’s investigation showed, the secret cash payments arranged by him and his peers at other agencies and shoe companies often never actually reached the players themselves, instead filtering through intermediaries who claimed to have influence: high school coaches, personal trainers, or coaches at summer leagues sponsored by shoe companies.

In the wiretapped phone call with Miller, for example, the Arizona coach asks Dawkins for information about Nassir Little, then a star high school player in Florida. Miller wanted to know which of the coaches on 1Family, the Adidas-sponsored team Little played for, had the most influence over him.

“Who do I focus on?” Miller asks.

“Sean wanted Nassir really badly,” Dawkins explains. “He knew I had a relationship with the grass-roots coaches who, at that time, I think we all were under the impression that they had juice with the situation.”

On the call, Dawkins advised Miller that, to secure Little’s commitment, he would have to arrange an unspecified deal for the grass-roots coaches.

“They definitely want to get some s— for themselves because they have been taking care of this kid,” Dawkins told the coach. In “The Scheme,” he explains he was telling Miller he’d need to pay the coaches.

“There’s no question that conversation was all about money,” Dawkins says.

“The Scheme” leaves out, however, how the situation around Little also revealed the routine grift in the basketball shadow economy. The FBI arrested one of Little’s grass-roots coaches—on charges associated with soliciting payments from an Adidas executive to influence where Little went to college— but prosecutors were forced to drop charges when they realized the coach had pocketed the money, never giving any to Little or his family.

Dawkins gets in on some of that graft himself, he claims, by pocketing money the undercover FBI agent was trying to give to various coaches. He didn’t think paying coaches to try to buy influence over college players made any sense, he explains.

“In my head, I’m like, he’s just really that stupid,” Dawkins says. “He doesn’t understand how the business works if he thinks that it makes sense to just go out here and pay coaches. I was never, ever, ever given a player directly from a coach.”

In wiretapped calls with Merl Code, an Adidas consultant Dawkins knew, the two discussed taking money from undercover FBI graft they would claim was going to coaches.

“So we’re just gonna take these fools’ money?” Code asks.

“Exactly,” Dawkins replied.

Both the FBI’s New York field office and the U.S. attorney’s office in the Southern District of New York, which oversaw the investigation and trials, declined to comment.

In Dawkins’ words, the villains of this story, albeit in a somewhat bumbling manner, are the FBI agents and federal prosecutors, for building an investigation on the legal argument that paying a player, or someone around that player, to try to influence the player’s college commitment is an act of fraud, because it violates NCAA rules

But the theory worked in the courtroom. Dawkins faces a potential 18-month sentence after convictions in separate trials, while two of his associates at Adidas face nine-month sentences. All are out pending appeals.

“The Scheme” fails to answer perhaps the largest question about the three-year investigation based out of New York that involved sting operations in a high-end suite in a Las Vegas resort and on a yacht in Manhattan, and months of expensive wiretaps on several phones: Why did the Justice Department decide to try to clean up college basketball?

“All of those charged today contributed to a pay-to-play culture that has no business in college basketball,” Bill Sweeney, assistant director in charge of the FBI’s New York field office, said at the Sept. 2017 news conference announcing the arrests of Dawkins and nine others. “Today’s arrests should serve as a warning to others . . . We have your playbook.”

More than two and a half years later, none of the prominent head coaches connected to the investigation have been charged with a crime. And state lawmakers across the country are pushing legislation that would permit college athletes to sign sponsorship and endorsement deals, effectively making some of the payments uncovered in the investigation between Adidas executives and top players’ families legal.

At one point, “The Scheme” includes a clip of ESPN’s Jay Bilas, speaking after the convictions last March of Dawkins and his associate Code.

“We’ve had cheating in this game forever. Players have been paid forever. Was that confirmed here? Yes,” Bilas said. “But did the Southern District of New York and the FBI deliver when they said we have your playbook and they made all these threats? No.”

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