The Scheme: The Complicated True Story of Christian Dawkins

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HBO has added to its documentary library with The Scheme, which follows one of the biggest college scandals in recent history — no, not that one. The documentary tells the true story of Christian Dawkins, a young man at the center of a ring of bribery and fraud involving college basketball recruits. In case you missed the film's premiere on March 31, here's a brief primer on the cases you'll hear about on screen.

Background of Bribery

According to ESPN, Dawkins worked as a "runner" — a sort of middleman — for Andy Miller, an NBA agent. For three years, up until 2017, federal investigators were looking into a ring of corruption in the college basketball world. Specifically, they were investigating violations of NCAA policies against paying college athletes and the ways many colleges and players were getting around those rules. Dawkins was involved with a group connected to Adidas, the sneaker company that sponsored several college athletic programs involved in the scheme.

The crux of the accusations was this: Dawkins, along with some colleagues, conspired to bribe student athletes to sign with Adidas-sponsored schools and made deals with coaches to get students to sign to their programs in exchange for influencing those students to later sign with Dawkins's sports management company. In ESPN's analysis, the criminal problem came when their schemes intersected with funding at universities that receive funding from the federal government. When the case split open, several figures in these rings became cooperating witnesses, turning over information to prosecutors in exchange for lighter treatment. According to a report from the Arizona newspaper, Dawkins refused FBI agents' requests to divulge information, and instead he became the focus of two trials, as shown in the documentary.

Trial in New York

In October 2018, a New York jury convicted Adidas Director of Global Marketing James Gatto, Adidas consultant basketball organizer Merl Code, and Dawkins of wire fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud. The case centered on three universities: Louisville, Kansas, and NC State, each of which had a player who was paid under the scheme. When Adidas paid those recruits, the prosecutors successfully argued, they violated NCAA rules, which require their players to be "amateur" (that is, not getting paid to play basketball, aside from athletic scholarships) in order to be eligible to play.

According to Sports Illustrated, they further argued that these payments meant the colleges had been defrauded by awarding scholarships under false pretenses or without full knowledge of their athletes' financial standings. In addition to financial fraud, the prosecutors successfully argued that Dawkins and his codefendants did intentional harm to the schools. The payments ran counter to NCAA's amateur rules, which would have put the universities at risk of sanctions from the NCAA. Dawkins received a sentence of six months in prison, although US District Court Judge Lewis A. Kaplan noted that Dawkins and the other men were clearly not the "top" men in the conspiracy.

Federal Trial

In 2019, Dawkins and Code were back in court, this time facing off with federal prosecutors. Dawkins was accused of facilitating bribes to several other former assistant coaches at different colleges: Tony Bland at USC, Emanuel "Book" Richardson at the University of Arizona, and Lamont Evans, who was associated with both the University of South Carolina and Oklahoma State. Among the witnesses for the prosecution was Munish Sood, the financial adviser who originally struck a deal with Dawkins: Dawkins would use Sood's money to pay players and their families, and any players from that scheme who made it to the NBA — with its massive salaries — would use Sood to manage their money. In exchange for getting off easy himself, Sood turned witness, not against any of the big-time agents or coaches in on the scheme but against Dawkins.

At the trial, Dawkins's own actions made fewer headlines than the other people implicated in it: namely, head coaches Bill Self (of the University of Kansas) and Sean Miller, Richardson's boss at the University of Arizona. Wiretapped phone calls — some of which were played in court, and several of which appear in the documentary — seemed to strongly implicate that the coaches were involved in the scheme as well; one tape that was widely quoted at the time involved Richardson and Dawkins discussing how Miller had "bought" player (and future NBA draft top pick) Deandre Ayton for the University of Arizona for $10,000 per month in bribes. Miller continues to deny involvement.

Questions continued during the trial of whether or not the violations of NCAA rules also constituted violations of federal bribery law. Ultimately, Dawkins was found guilty on two bribery charges and sentenced to serve two sentences (to be served concurrently) of one year and one day in prison. In the sentencing memorandum, as reported by ESPN, Dawkins's lawyer Steven Haney ripped into prosecutors for targeting Dawkins instead of high-powered coaches.

"[M]any of the other individuals that the Government knows participated in the exact same conduct as Christian Dawkins, and the co-Defendants, have not been, and apparently will not be criminally charged... the Government is fully aware numerous Division I head basketball coaches engaged in the same conduct as charged in his case, but for some inexplicable reason were not charged." Regardless of who ended up paying the price legally, The Scheme details the multilayered complexities of college recruiting, which is supposed to be bound by NCAA rules to avoid these very situations. But, as the documentary shows, people who are determined to circumvent the rules will always find a way.