Monday, March 05, 2018

Why is the @FBI is Investigating College Basketball Corruption? #TheMob #OrganizedCrime

The question posed by my nephew was a fair one. It also caught me off guard. When he and I discussed my former profession, it typically related to the headlines surrounding Russia, or school shootings, or the president’s relentless hammering of certain senior-level FBI officials.

My sister’s eldest son had played Division I basketball at my alma mater, the United States Military Academy. But he now found himself embroiled in a heated debate with some of his former teammates.

“Why,” my nephew queried, “is the FBI focused on the NCAA and the open ‘dirty secret’ that is high profile basketball programs and their famous head coaches paying for the services of top recruits?”

With the recent announcements of federal corruption charges brought by the Department of Justice (DOJ), the college basketball world has been turned upside down. But along with the expected breathless reporting that comes with news of federal charges leveled at a powerful American sporting institution, came some unexpected pushback.

Many share my nephew’s curiosity. And with so much abundant criminality in our society, why, they posit, should the FBI lose focus on terrorists, bank robbers, pedophiles, and gangbangers? And aren’t under-the-table payment schemes used to convince young athletes to commit to a particular program as old as time?

These are fair and legitimate questions. And I’ve even encountered many who have gone further so as to condemn the FBI and DOJ for this probe. They argue that violations of NCAA rules are not tantamount to the commission of federal crimes. Some, like Sports Illustrated’s Charles P. Pierce have proclaimed that the FBI has better things to do and that these investigations are the express purview of the NCAA.

Pierce maintains that the FBI has conflated NCAA violations with crimes and is playing the unwitting heavy — the “enforcement arm,” if you will — for a feckless and ignoble NCAA. But does he have a point?

Well, let’s begin by determining just what the FBI investigates. Matters that earn the FBI’s attention are federal crimes — illegal or criminal acts — and related to specific violations of federal law. They are typically prosecuted in federal courts. This is an orthodoxy we all understand.

Universally considered the primary law enforcement agency for the U.S. government, the FBI is charged with enforcement of more than 200 categories of federal laws. And investigative priorities include, but are not limited to, matters involving terrorism, public corruption, civil rights, organized crime, white-collar crime, violent crime, and weapons of mass destruction. And that means that the FBI is hyper-focused on an infinitesimal amount of the some 5,000 federal criminal laws and 10,000 — 300,000 regulations that can be enforced federally. But how did an FBI investigation into basketball coaches at collegiate powerhouses and shady shoe company executives get approval from higher-ups at Main Justice and FBI headquarters?

Well, the solicitation of bribes is a crime. So, even though these seemingly benign, tolerated “shenanigans” are what many view as ordinary NCAA violations, they are in fact federal crimes.

Yes, the federal case targeting the impure in collegiate sports has landed ten defendants — head coaches and assistant coaches alike — in hot water for cheating NCAA rules. What brings the coaches under FBI scrutiny is that they are “agents of federally funded organizations.”

The defendants are charged with committing “fraud” against the universities that were considered “unaware” of the alleged schemes.

So why, again, are investigations like this important?

Well, firstly, there are certainly degrees of criminality. But should we ever dismiss investigations of wrongdoing or consider abuses of the public trust and breaches of the fundamental fairness expected in sports to be trivial pursuits?

The NCAA reportedly earned some $10.8 billion in media rights (from CBS Sports and Turner Broadcasting) in 2012-13.

By way of comparison, the GDP for the country of Liechtenstein is $6.664 billion. And in 2016, more than 70 million people — more than the folks who voted for either candidate, Trump or Clinton, in the 2016 election — wagered more than $9 billion dollars on the NCAA’s March Madness men’s basketball tournament. And since we’re on the subject of GDP, that’s a figure some $2 billion more than Fiji’s.

So collegiate sports like men’s basketball are big business.

Look, the FBI sometimes brings cases against seemingly impenetrable and unassailable institutions to send a message, or as a deterrent. And what institution is more uniquely American than collegiate sports. And investigations into sports betting, corruption, and point shaving are also uniquely American. They also ultimately lead to one of the FBI’s investigative priorities —organized crime. Where there is sports corruption, there usually exists one of the FBI’s legendary adversaries, the Mob.

The Mob was an outside influence in the 1978-79 Boston College basketball point shaving scandal. Martin Scorsese famously chronicled the “Goodfellas” gangsters involved in the scheme, like Henry Hill and James “Jimmy the Gent” Burke. And more recently, the FBI’s New York Office — where I served for most of my 25 year career – brought a corruption case against the world’s largest athletic governing body, FIFA. If soccer is undeniably the global game, then the FBI is the world’s premier law enforcement agency. And if sports provides a blissful respite for citizens of the world during these chaotic times, then we deserve them to be free of corruption and outside influence. Every viewer deserves a reasonable expectation that outcomes are not fixed and that there exists a level playing field for all contestants.

So FBI investigations into the current NCAA scandal are deserved of resources and attention. No one really believes that the NCAA has ever done a thorough job of policing their programs. The FBI has the ability to work across investigative disciplines. Their priorities are appropriately aligned and their resources are strategically allocated to meet those requirements.

Collegiate sports are a pleasant diversion for a country starving for items to take our attention off the media’s Russia infatuation and the daily chaos emanating out of the White House.

Sports will forever be susceptible to “dirty” and corruptive forces. So allow the FBI to remain ever vigilant to ensure that these incidents are anomalies and not tolerated “business as usual” practices to be ignored and accepted.   

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