Thursday, March 24, 2011

Could a criminal organization gain control of a major college athletics program?

image With billions of dollars at stake in lucrative media deals, gear/apparel sponsorships, season ticket packages and memorabilia sales, you almost have to wonder how this hasn’t happened yet. Or, maybe it has happened and we haven’t had anyone pull back the curtain to see who’s really running things.

In January 2006, ESPN’s Mike Fish ran a story highlighting some of the most influential boosters associated with major college athletics programs. In that story, Fish outlines how a number of wealthy, powerful individuals have gained unprecedented access and influence at some of the country’s largest and most elite college sports organizations.

Wouldn’t that also be a roadmap for a criminal enterprise to gain access, influence and eventually, control?

Throughout the 20th century, the notorious five mafia families systematically infiltrated and gained control over industries such as construction, garbage collection, trucking, gambling, hotel & casino operations and others. If there was an industry making money in 20th Century America, you were sure to see the mob either gaining influence and control, or in near complete control.  Relentless federal prosecutions during the latter part of the century essentially emasculated the mafia and severely reduced its influence. But where there’s money to be made, there’s going to be crime.

And there’s lots and lots of money in college athletics.

In the 1980’s and 1990’s, the University of Miami was sliding down a slippery slope. Investigative reports by the Miami Herald and Sports Illustrated produced stories of sexual misconduct, hundreds of thousands in improper pay-for-play benefits, drugs, guns and a major college athletics program infested with a thuggish street culture associated with drug dealers and rap stars. The school gave the term Miami Vice a whole new meaning.  There was no proof or allegation that an organized criminal enterprise had seized control of the program, but it sure seemed headed in that direction. In 1995, the NCAA hammered the school with severe sanctions that many still believe lie at the heart of the program’s inability to return and remain at the elite level it had achieved under Howard Schnellenberger, Jimmy Johnson and Dennis Erickson.

Last October, The Tuskegee News’ Paul Davis outlined a business relationship between Auburn University’s Tigers Unlimited Foundation—once headed by current Athletic Director Jay Jacobs—and super-lobbyist Robert Geddie. Geddie was one of 11 people indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of fraud, conspiracy, money laundering and extortion. Also indicted were Auburn booster and casino owner Milton McGregor and Auburn graduate Jarrod Massey. Massey has since pleaded guilty and is cooperating with prosecutors in the case. But even the casual observer should note that the current athletic director of a major college sports program has a documented business relationship with a man scheduled to go on trial in federal court in June. It is impossible to conclusively state that the university has been infiltrated by a criminal enterprise, but when so many faces start showing up in the same unusual places, it has to make fans nervous.

How vulnerable are these programs to being taken over by crooks?

I asked that question of a retired Division I Athletic Director, and his answer wasn’t damning, but neither was it reassuring. “The governing authority of major college athletics—the NCAA—is a voluntary organization. It is supposed to be self-policing and relies on member institutions to ‘play by the rules’ and self-report their own violations. So, if you have a collection of ne’er do wells hell-bent on taking over, and remember their entire business model is based on lawlessness and rule-breaking, then yes, it could happen. I don’t think it has and I don’t think it will, but to say it can’t happen is to be somewhat naive and foolish.”

I also asked GMAN-1104—an IBCR co-blogger and retired federal prosecutor—what he thought about the possibility. “If you’re asking me if the mob or some other organized crime outfit could invade college sports, I’d say they’re already involved. Maybe not in controlling a program, but certainly so in trying to fix games for gambling. Every time I know of that federal authorities have gotten involved in situations where there’s rule-breaking in college sports, it’s been about gambling.”

Are you getting a little queasy?

Remember, the NCAA Enforcement staff has absolutely no subpoena power and can’t compel anyone to testify. They can’t make anyone produce documents or provide evidence. The farther removed from the institution an individual or organization is, the less motivation they have for cooperating. Add to this the chaotic nature of the way the NCAA interprets and enforces its own rules, and you have a situation that seems ripe for the introduction of high-level criminal activity.

The self-policing aspect of NCAA membership means that the chances of getting caught are much smaller than with other money-making enterprises. There’s no individual punishment for those not directly tied to or employed by the university. And, the chaotic, every-case-is-different approach to interpretation and enforcement might mean everyone walks free even when everyone knows that rules were shattered and laws broken.

Ah, but NCAA rules violations aren’t violations of federal law, right?

Some are, some are not. Any violation of federal law would result in corresponding violation of NCAA rules, but the relationship is not reciprocal. Paying a player is not against federal law. But extorting a player or forcing him/her to play for a particular program would likely run afoul of several federal statutes. A group of crooked boosters bribing high school coaches may or may not get attention from federal authorities, but that would be what NCAA rules terms a “lack of institutional control.”

At any rate, until someone talks or comes forward with evidence, nothing would likely be done to the perpetrators at either level. So could it happen?  Yes. 

The billion dollar Exit Question: Is it happening?  Bada bing, bada boom, baby.

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