College basketball payouts raise questions, but uncovering real scandal could take time

Former N.C. State guard Dennis Smith Jr. (4) passes around Clemson’s Marcquise Reed (2) during the second half of Clemson’s 75-61 victory over N.C. State in the ACC tournament at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., on March 7, 2017. Ethan Hyman ehyman@newsobserver.com
Former N.C. State guard Dennis Smith Jr. (4) passes around Clemson’s Marcquise Reed (2) during the second half of Clemson’s 75-61 victory over N.C. State in the ACC tournament at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., on March 7, 2017. Ethan Hyman ehyman@newsobserver.com

In a way, this is what everyone suspected all along: A river of dirty money flowing through the world of college basketball. Payouts by a crooked agent to players including Dennis Smith Jr., among others, aren’t surprising.

Yet some of what’s contained in Friday’s Yahoo Sports report is utterly mundane. All Tony Bradley, Brice Johnson and Wendell Carter Jr., or their families, are accused of taking is a free meal.

Still, these payouts, allegedly laid out in documents collected as part of the FBI’s probe into college basketball and viewed by Yahoo Sports, raise questions about the eligibility of players past and present and one very immediate question for Duke.

North Carolina's Tony Bradley (5) drives to the basket during the second half of UNC's victory over Gonzaga in the NCAA Division I men's basketball national championship game at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, AZ, on April 3, 2017.
Ethan Hyman ehyman@newsobserver.com

And the selective and surreptitious nature of this information dump will make it impossible for the NCAA to actually do anything, leaving schools with impossible decisions to make about the implicated players.

While Smith, the former N.C. State star, is alleged to have taken $73,500 in illegal loans, a clear-cut NCAA violation, UNC’s Bradley and Johnson and Duke’s Carter are on a list of players or families alleged to have met with runner Christian Dawkins. Any violation committed if Dawkins paid for their meals, as alleged, would be minor.

Because none of the actual documents are public or verified, Duke has no real reason to declare Carter ineligible (even if just for a game). At the same time, how can Duke not, given what’s allegedly contained within?

If Carter or his family had a meal paid for by Dawkins, and the NCAA years from now eventually figures out that’s a violation, Duke’s entire season will be in jeopardy, retroactively, for that relatively picayune infraction, one likely easily handled under normal circumstances with a short suspension or charitable donation.

Later Friday, Duke announced it was able to verify Carter's eligibility to its satisfaction.

And yet any NCAA investigation into these charges, if there ever even is one, isn’t even going to start before Carter’s college career is over. Duke can’t get an eligibility ruling based on a Yahoo Report, with no dollar amounts or details about the alleged meeting.

So its choices are to lose a key piece of a potential national title team for good or play on and hope for the best, since there’s nothing the NCAA can do right now, either.

North Carolina may have won a national title with an ineligible player, but at least there’s nothing the Tar Heels have to do about that now. They can sit and wait, just like N.C. State and the four ACC games it won with Smith.

Duke, though, is in a no-win situation with Carter. Whatever happens to that team going forward, this will hang over it, rightly or wrongly.

It’s a mess.

If you thought the NCAA enforcement machinery lacked due process, these leaks from the FBI investigation are worse. Without details on when some of these payments were made or meals took place, it’s impossible to know whether schools should have known or what they should try to do about it now.

While there’s no doubt that college basketball is also built on a foundation of dirty money – from shoe companies and agents and who knows what else – and the NCAA has been utterly unable to address that other than in drips and drabs, the FBI investigation into it isn’t exactly on the firmest ground either.

Duke forward Wendell Carter Jr (34) goes up to score in the second half as Clemson guard Gabe DeVoe (10) defends. Duke defeated Clemson 66-57 at Littlejohn Coliseum in Clemson, S.C., Sunday, Feb. 18, 2018.
Chuck Liddy cliddy@newsobserver.com

While the half of it relating to assistant coaches taking bribes to steer players to agents and financial advisers is a straightforward bribery case, the recruiting aspect of it has always been predicated on a shaky legal claim that the schools are the victim, somehow defrauded by agents conspiring to make players ineligible – essentially, that conspiring to break an NCAA regulation is a federal crime.

The Yahoo report outlines myriad potential NCAA violations, but it isn’t a federal crime by itself to lend someone money or take someone to lunch.

And while a real investigation into the underbelly of college basketball is long overdue, the willy-nilly leakage of explosive documents – whether it comes from the FBI, prosecutors or the implicated agents themselves, running for cover – isn’t necessarily conducive to getting to the bottom of anything.

As the original investigation into North Carolina’s football program showed, agents and their runners will sneak through any crevice and crack in a program and try to pay players for everything from signed jerseys to parking tickets. All that’s documented here is the wayward ways of one dirty agent, leaked to further someone’s agenda. The much-ballyhooed FBI investigation is a long way from the heart of the problem.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock