Investigating the FBI’s college basketball corruption probe
Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Friday, March 10. I’m Nathan Fenno, an investigative reporter focused on sports.
Few events on the sports calendar rival the NCAA’s annual basketball extravaganza. Buzzer-beating shots. Triumphant underdogs. Name-brand schools chasing a championship. And, of course, tens of millions of fans filling out brackets to predict the outcome of each game.
The three-week tournament — which tips off next week and includes first- and second-round men’s games at the Golden 1 Center in Sacramento — generated more than $800 million in television revenue for the NCAA last year. That’s dwarfed by the $3.1 billion the American Gaming Assn. projected would be wagered on the 2022 tournament. Even nosebleed seats for the men’s title game in Houston this year are selling on the secondary market for $224 each. March Madness means big money.
Money was at the center of my investigation published this week that reexamined the high-profile FBI investigation into college basketball corruption. The probe, it turns out, had a misconduct scandal of its own.
Five and a half years ago, federal authorities unveiled the long-running college basketball investigation that had resulted in the arrest of 10 men, including assistant coaches at USC, Arizona, Auburn and Oklahoma State, on charges like conspiracy to commit bribery and wire fraud.
“For the 10 charged men, the madness of college basketball went well beyond the Big Dance in March,” Joon Kim, then-acting U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, said at a news conference on Sept. 26, 2017.
William Sweeney, then-assistant director in charge of the New York FBI office, followed up with an ominous comment that became a tagline for the investigation. He warned would-be miscreants that “we have your playbook.”
I wrote about that news conference when it happened. It’s difficult to overstate the shock waves the investigation sent through the sport. Upsets and full-court presses had been replaced by wiretaps and undercover FBI agents. One headline described it as “Armageddon.” College basketball seemed certain to be upended.
But the hype didn’t match the reality, like so many things in the probe that investigators code-named Ballerz.
Over the last few years, I’ve gathered thousands of pages of records from the case, including court testimony, text messages, intercepted phone calls, emails, internal FBI performance reviews and other documents. Those helped me conduct an extensive reassessment of the investigation.
The records tell a gripping story — with some details that haven’t emerged until now. The alleged wrongdoing that seemed so damning when presented by authorities during the news conference turned out to be a lot murkier. Careers were wrecked. Five men were sent to federal prison. And lurking in the shadows all these years — consigned to sealed court filings or vague mentions during hearings and in news stories — was misconduct by the lead FBI agent on the case.
The saga involves race — all four of the coaches who were charged are Black — and questions about NCAA rules that until recent years barred athletes from profiting from their name, image and likeness; what crimes are worth the federal government leveraging vast resources to combat; and how federal authorities treat one of their own when they end up on the wrong side of the law.
You can read the story here: “How an FBI agent’s wild Vegas weekend stained an investigation into NCAA basketball corruption.”
And now, here’s what’s happening across California, from Ryan Fonseca:
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