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College basketball bribery trial: As another coach is sentenced to prison, it’s time for the NCAA to act

On Friday in Lower Manhattan, former South Carolina and Oklahoma State assistant men’s basketball coach Lamont Evans was sentenced to three months behind bars. He’ll serve that time later this year, just as former Arizona assistant Book Richardson will. Richardson was delivered an identical sentencing fate on Wednesday

What’s potentially scarier for Evans: since he was not born in the United States, he could be deported upon his release from lockup in the fall. 

Think about that: Evans’ side-hustle greed, that he in all likelihood never imagined would be federally unlawful, might wind up with him being taken out of the country. That is a most extreme portrait of how severe this situation got with college basketball and the United States government. There are skeptics and cynics over whether Evans even deserved prison time for taking money to steer players to Christian Dawkins’ sports management company. Deportation, be it for letter-of-the-law reasons or otherwise, is an unwarranted, malicious demise.

U.S. Court District Judge Edgardo Ramos handed down Evans and Richardson’s sentences, the effects of which will no doubt reverberate throughout college basketball and be remembered for decades. 

“I do believe punishment in this case is important,” Ramos said from the bench Thursday. 

Evans helped construct South Carolina to national prominence — players he recruited were on the Gamecocks’ 2017 Final Four team — and then parlayed that opportunity into getting a higher-paying job at Oklahoma State. He was arguably the least known of the assistants charged in this case. He pled guilty to accepting $22,000 in bribes over the course of many months, and in doing so, threatened the eligibility of multiple former college basketball players and the well-being (from an NCAA standpoint) of the schools he worked at. 

Richardson and Evans never went to trial; their guilty pleas in January on conspiracy to commit bribery assured them of avoiding the judgment of a jury. But their stories and professional endings, in addition to ex-Southern Cal assistant Tony Bland (who was lucky to merely receive two years worth of probation) and ex-Auburn assistant Chuck Person (who will be sentenced later this year) set historical precedent.

Cautionary tales? The NCAA could put these men’s pictures and punishments on page one of its rules manual and have that be as effective of a deterrent tactic as almost any rule it could institute. 

“They’re paying the price for it,” Craig Mordock, Richardson’s attorney, said Thursday. “They will never work in basketball again.”

We haven’t seen the most damaging punishment yet, either. Person likely awaits an even worse prison sentence than Richardson and Evans because he pled guilty to nearly five times as much bribe money ($90,000) and was involved in fraud, bribery and deception to such a point that prosecutors severed his misdeeds to a separate case from Evans, Bland and Richardson. 

This is now fact: You can be found guilty of federal crimes while engaging in acts that violate NCAA rules. No one knows if we’ll ever see something like this again, but the possibility of it happening will always be there. 

“The mere fact someone was operating in college basketball in disagreement with the rules does not excuse bribery,” federal prosecutor Eli Mark said Wednesday. 

The federal government’s investigation into bribery and fraud in college basketball recruiting has remained a constant topic of conversation, curiosity, concern and inquisitiveness in the year-and-a-half-plus since Bland, Richardson, Evans and Person — along with Christian Dawkins, Merl Code and others — were arrested in late September of 2017. 

Now the NCAA’s investigations, more than a dozen of them, take center stage. 

One of the largest questions, if not the largest, is this: How will the NCAA’s Enforcement division and its Committee on Infractions judicial branch use not just the findings but the opinions of the federal government, and of federal judges, in meting out punishment? The government contended all along that the schools were victims in these crimes; that assertion was crucial to many of the charges assessed against defendants. 

What’s more, Ramos echoed the opinion of the feds at Bland and at Richardson’s sentencings. 

“I believe the institutions were victimized,” he said Wednesday. “I believe the students and the players were victimized.”

The NCAA is its member schools. It is a collective. If it opts to believe its schools were victimized in the way the government believes the schools were victimized, well wouldn’t it stand to reason that the NCAA would go light on punishments of institutions and instead lean on punishments of individuals? These are knotty philosophical issues, and who’s to say if the NCAA’s equipped to handle them appropriately. The men arrested in this case will almost certainly never work in college athletics again. So what then? You go after their bosses, the head coaches? Based off interactions and conversations I’ve had with dozens of coaches, that is the hope of many in the sport. 

But how do you assess the actions of these assistants? Rogue agents? Lay responsibility and lack of control on a head coach? What is the gauge on how much lack of control one coach had at one school vs. another? 

This entire saga and the mess it’s made should ultimately keep the pay-the-players discussion indefinitely active at the NCAA level. The testimony and wiretaps and video surveillance from the October and April trials clearly suggested that the amateurism system as it exists now led to much if not all of the rule-breaking and unlawful behavior by parties both inside and outside of college basketball. 

Even Richardson told me on Thursday, as he left the courthouse, that it seems time to take a serious look at changing the NCAA’s system of amateurism. He might have believed that two, five even 10 years ago, but receiving a prison sentence can provide a lot of clarity — and the freedom to speak up on this. 

Judge Lewis Kaplan couldn’t avoid this elephant during the first trial, and Ramos broached the topic multiple times with the jury and with attorneys during the second trial. 

On Wednesday, he brought it up again at Bland’s sentencing. 

“There is a debate that is currently going on as to whether college basketball players deserve to be paid,” Ramos said. “I am certainly of the view that there is a current status, the rules, the rules that have to be followed. … The way that debate played out play no role in how I thought of this case.”  

It should play nothing less than a major role in the court of the NCAA. It’s the biggest reason why college basketball was brought to such a point — to a moment where coaches will hear the clink of a jail-cell door shut behind them. The debate needs to be a concurrent one to the ongoing NCAA investigations and subsequent sanctions to come months/years from now. 

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