Court in Session: The FBI is not helping correct college sports’ twisted rules

February was a big month for blockbuster sports news. With the Super Bowl, NBA All-Star Game and Houston Astros cheating revelations, you might have missed the most recent development from another unfolding story. 

On Feb. 6, financial adviser Marty Blazer, who acted as an FBI informant and was the catalyst for the 2017 college basketball bribery scandal, avoided jail time but was ordered to pay $1.5 million in restitution while also ordered to forfeit $2.3 million in assets in U.S. District Court. 

The bribery scandal sent shockwaves through the college basketball world, implicating 22 programs in total and resulting in the arrests of assistant coaches from USC, Auburn, Oklahoma State and Alabama. 

Though it is an uncontroversial and positive development that cheaters are being punished, another consequence of the scandal is that federal authorities have voluntarily taken up the mantle of enforcing — and therefore legitimizing — the NCAA’s amateurism rules.

The FBI’s investigation uncovered a complex scheme to pay prospective players that was unprecedented in its scale. It revealed that  the implicated assistant coaches — including USC’s Tony Bland —  received money from a financial adviser and NBA agent in return for recommending their services to players. The FBI also alleged that an Adidas executive collaborated with the coaching staffs of Miami and Louisville to siphon six-figure payments to the families of high schoolers as a means of gaining a recruiting advantage. 

The scandal also cast a shadow over USC’s once-promising 2017-18 basketball season. Ranked 10th in the preseason AP poll, the Trojans were forced to endure the arrest of Bland and the full-season suspension of starting guard De’Anthony Melton due to the bribery revelations, resulting in a disappointing season that ended without an NCAA Tournament berth.

Another distinguishing feature of the 2017 scandal was that the investigation into the scheme and the eventual punishment of those implicated were carried out by federal authorities, marking a shift toward the criminalization of NCAA rules violations. Despite the fact that the NCAA has its own investigation and enforcement processes to uphold its rules, the organization took a hands-off approach to the bribery scandal and let federal authorities take charge.

In order to prosecute NCAA rules violators, federal authorities capitalized on the fact that the universities involved receive federal funds. Prosecutors argued that the violators committed fraud by making the federally funded universities they worked for susceptible to NCAA punishment.

In other words, rather than treating the bribery scandal as the systemic issue it is, federal law enforcement officials prosecuted relatively low-level assistant coaches and intermediaries while employing legal reasoning that casts the major universities implicated as victims because there was a chance the NCAA could have caught them.

Many observers have rightfully questioned the wisdom of the federal government serving as an enforcement mechanism for the NCAA. 

“If you take away NCAA rules, there’s no criminal case here,” George Washington University law professor Randall Eliason told the Washington Post. “There are some legitimate questions about whether this was a wise use of resources.”

Eliason is right. As significant a development the bribery scandal was in the college basketball world, it is absurd that federal authorities expended taxpayer funds, in addition to the FBI’s time and energy, to investigate and prosecute assistant college basketball coaches and intermediaries who could hardly be described as menaces to society.

And perhaps more disturbingly, by prosecuting those involved in the bribery scandal on the basis that they broke NCAA rules, the federal government has given a tacit endorsement to the organization’s outdated and irrational amateurism rules.

Despite the fact that the college basketball bribery scandal seems like a dangerous development because the words “bribery” and “fraud” are frequently used in association with it, there was nothing inherently wrong with the actions that sparked it. 

Much like how companies often recruit high-profile ambassadors or social media influencers, the Adidas executive and the other individuals accused of making bribes identified individuals who would likely be of value to their company and made inroads with those individuals through financial compensation. Only NCAA rules restricting a free market for college athletes’ services made the payments at issue “bribes.” These rules need to be changed.

Jake Mequet is a junior writing about sports and law. His column, “Court in Session,” runs every other Monday.