In September 2017, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York announced the arrest of 10 individuals connected to a bribery scheme within NCAA basketball.
The accusations were that agents and advisors were steering promising high school players toward specific college teams where they’d be offered athletic endorsements and cash deals.
Among those arrested were four coaches, two Adidas executives, and the man pegged as the kingpin of the whole operation, Christian Dawkins.
In a press conference, FBI assistant director William Sweeney Jr. gave a damning message: “Today’s arrest should serve as a warning to others choosing to conduct business this way in the world of college athletics: We have your playbook.”
It made it seem like the authorities were about to rain hellfire on college sports. The NCAA is a billion-dollar organization, so a pay-for-play scandal like this promised to be the very tip of a much larger, more corrupt iceberg.
But the maximum sentence anyone received went to Dawkins with 18 months, and there were no further investigations into the matter.
The FBI spent three years building a case, possibly spending millions of taxpayers dollars, only to land 3 out of 10 convictions (everyone else either got fined, probation, or nothing at all). The Southern District of New York is known for going after high-profile figures such as Martha Stewart, Bernie Madoff, and Michael Cohen—and Dawkins, a relative no-name among NCAA coaching legends and pretty much just the middleman in all of this, gets the harshest sentence of a year and a half.
So what happened?
It’s just one of the questions filmmaker Pat Kondelis tries to answer in his HBO documentary, The Scheme.
The Scheme focuses on Dawkins but eventually spins into an elaborate web involving a failed movie producer, an allegedly crooked undercover FBI agent, surveilled meetings on a yacht and in luxury Las Vegas suites, and beyond.
“This whole thing was a circus and that was full of dark humor,” Kondelis says. “If the Coen brothers did a documentary, this is what I could see them making.”
Dawkins may have been at the center of this particular case, but it stands to reason he wasn’t the first nor will be the last person connecting high school players to college coaches. And that’s the second and perhaps more important question Kondelis raises in The Scheme: Why is this a punishable offense in the first place?
Although the NCAA makes a considerable fortune from seminal events like March Madness, college athletes aren’t traditionally compensated. The NCAA’s rule of “amateurism” essentially bars college players from receiving compensation like professional athletes do—even though the school and the coaches are paid millions. Arguably, if college athletes were paid in accordance to what they make for their respective universities, what Dawkins did in making connections between high school players and college coaches would hardly be illegal.
In The Scheme, sports author Dan Wetzel sets up a perfect hypothetical analogy of a company like Google offering top STEM high school students a paid internship with a suggestion they work for them later on instead of the competition.
“They would write that up in the newspaper. They would put that on TV. It would be an outreach program. It would be a way to inspire young students. It would be tremendous,” Wetzel said. “What’s the difference?”
“To me it comes across as one of the most un-American ideals ever,” Kondelis says. “How can you make billions of dollars and tell these guys they’re not supposed to get anything, that they should just be happy to be there? It’s ridiculous.”
The NCAA is currently in the process of relaxing its rules against players receiving compensation, but there’s no clear timeframe on when that will happen or what the exact terms will be. Even putting NCAA compensation aside, there’s still much Kondelis aims to unpack in The Scheme—or at the very least spark some dialogue.
One question that bookends The Scheme is Kondelis asking Dawkins if he thinks he did anything wrong. If someone just read the allegations lobbed at Dawkins when he was arrested in 2017, it may seem like a clear-cut yes. However, once you start peeling back the layers of the story, nothing seems as certain anymore.
“Should the FBI be enforcing NCAA rules and pretending that they’re actually federal crimes? Should Christian Dawkins be treated differently in the criminal justice system than a Sean Miller or Will Wade? Should the government have started a three-year undercover FBI investigation?” Kondelis says. “I hope the audience will ask questions when they see this. We very intentionally tried to not steer them in one direction or the other. They’re questions we don’t necessarily have the answer to. But sometimes just asking those questions is more important than giving a definitive answer one way or another.”