NEW YORK – A federal appeals court in New York on Friday upheld convictions against a sports marketer, an aspiring agent and a financial adviser in a college basketball scandal that spoiled the careers of several coaches and left a stain on the integrity of college athletics.
The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan said in its written decision that it was not adequate for the defendants to argue that their actions mirrored what was commonly done in college basketball programs and that their aim was to help universities, rather than harm.
“The ends, however, do not justify the means, and that others are engaging in improper behavior does not make it lawful,” the 2nd Circuit said in an opinion written by Judge Denny Chin.
The convictions grew from the 2017 arrests of 10 individuals in what authorities described as a conspiracy to pay bribes to the families of young players to ensure NBA-bound college basketball stars would pledge allegiance to certain agents and handlers or attend certain schools.
The appeal stemmed from the convictions of former Adidas executive James Gatto, business manager Christian Dawkins and amateur league director Merl Code. They were convicted of conspiracy to commit wire fraud for funneling money and recruits to Louisville and Kansas.
Dawkins and Code were convicted at a second trial on a single conspiracy count but acquitted of some other charges.
At trial, the men acknowledged that their actions violated NCAA rules and the official policies of the universities, but they also maintained that the universities quietly welcomed the secret payments as long as they could pretend they knew nothing of them.
Other defendants pleaded guilty to charges or cooperated with prosecutors rather than go to trial, including four former assistant basketball coaches who pleaded guilty to bribery conspiracy. Prison sentences in the case were relatively short.
In ruling, the three-judge appeals panel noted that the defendants argued that they should not have been convicted because they did not have fraudulent intent since their scheme was designed to help the schools recruit top-tier players.
Circuit Judge Gerard E. Lynch offered a partial dissent, saying he would have rejected some charges on grounds that evidence of some phone calls the defendants wanted to show jurors was unjustly disqualified.
“The district court was ultimately right to try to prevent the defendants from putting the entire NCAA system on trial for its exploitation of athletes under circumstances that make violations of the sort in which these defendants engaged all but inevitable,” he wrote.
“By the same token, a venture into the underside of college athletic recruiting opens up significant questions about the motivations and beliefs of the participants,” Lynch said. “The evidence from which the majority infers that these coaches were not unconflicted and were acting in bad faith should have been left to the jury.”
He cited a conversation between Code and Dawkins in which they reference their understanding that then-Louisville head coach Rick Pitino wanted “plausible deniability” about any recruiting infractions.
“That Pitino wanted plausible deniability does not necessarily mean that he knew Louisville would not tolerate cheating. It could equally well mean that he was speaking for the university itself,” the judge said.
Pitino, who’s now coaching Iona, was not charged in the case and has consistently denied authorizing or having knowledge of a payment to a recruit’s family.
“We should be particularly careful not to sweep too broadly in declaring out of bounds evidence that does indeed support the defendants’ claims about what they believed. The cynicism of their claimed beliefs does not do them much credit, but on this record one is left with a queasy feeling that the deeper cynicism may be in the system within which they operate," the judge added.
Messages seeking comment were sent to lawyers for the men.
More than two dozen schools were ensnared in the scandal for misdeeds ranging from paying for meals to six-figure payments to recruits’ families.
Duke, Oregon, North Carolina State, Creighton and Texas were among the schools mentioned in testimony during a 2018 trial.
At the second trial, individuals at the University of South Carolina, Oklahoma State University, the University of Arizona, the University of Southern California, Creighton University and Texas Christian University were implicated.