The Scheme

The FBI launches an investigation into Christian Dawkins and a criminal enterprise that offers cash payments to NCAA basketball prospects.

At 27, Christian Dawkins has quite the business résumé. At 12, he started a website scouting high school basketball players from his house in Saginaw, Michigan, used – with a fee – by coaches around state. (In a flash of bravado, he, then in middle school, also ranked himself.) At 17, he ran a club basketball team in honor of his brother, who died of a heart condition on the court at 14; it became a top five program in the country and the only midwestern team with an Under Armour shoe deal. At 22, he was the right-hand man for one of the biggest agents in the NBA, Andy Miller, and personally recruited 10 first-round draft picks by 2017.

And at 26, he became a convicted federal felon, twice over. Technically, it’s for bribery and conspiracy in a pay-for-play scheme with college basketball coaches. Practically, it’s for being what the New York Times called “the most honest man in college basketball”, and the fall guy for a lopsided federal prosecution into one of sports’ worst-kept secrets: paying players in college basketball.

Now, in HBO’s The Scheme, Dawkins tells his side of the story for the first time with a refreshingly candid, unbelievable and at times ludicrously funny account of an FBI sting, an overzealous prosecution and the cartoonish state of the NCAA’s charade of big-time college sports as “amateur” athletics. Dawkins’s tale is, in short, “one of the craziest stories I’ve ever come across”, Pat Kondelis, director of The Scheme, told the Guardian.

When the southern district of New York announced indictments and an investigation into the “dark underbelly” of men’s college basketball at a showy press conference in the fall of 2017, they issued a stark warning to colleges: “We have your playbook.” This being the office behind the convictions of America’s most powerful white-collar criminals – Martha Stewart, Bernie Madoff, Michael Cohen – the threat landed like a bombshell. “I think the feeling among sports fans was, wow, this is going to be huge, this is going to change the landscape of college athletics,” said Kondelis. The prosecution’s confidence hinted that the big guns – multimillionaire coaches at high-wattage programs – might be vulnerable: Rick Pitino at the University of Louisville, Sean Miller at the University of Arizona, Will Wade at Louisiana State University (LSU). “If the FBI is involved, and they got wiretaps, people are going to go down,” Kondelis assumed. “And then nothing happened.”

Instead, they settled for Dawkins, a relatively low-profile high school and college scout with ample basketball connections but little clout, at least to the NCAA. No head coaches were charged. As the New York Times wrote at the time of the verdict in May 2019: “They have let the capos testify against the button men while the Godfathers – the coaches and athletic directors and presidents – walk away untouched.” Coronavirus stoppage aside, college basketball marches on as a multimillion-dollar business for universities; the NCAA made $1.1bn in revenue in the 2017 fiscal year.

The Scheme depicts, through Dawkins’s testimony and, crucially, wiretapped phone calls and undercover video, how this came to pass. In 2017, two business partners introduced Dawkins to a mysterious financier, Jeff D’Angelo (real identity unknown), and his partner, Jill Bailey. D’Angelo offered cash to get Dawkins’s management company off ground; he also insisted on paying college coaches to convince their athletes to sign with the company. Dawkins thought the plan was ridiculous, but still, money is money; in person and wiretapped calls, Dawkins claims to have set up meetings with coaches as a show, and then pocketed the cash. He thought D’Angelo was an idiot; he did not think he was an undercover FBI agent.

Much of The Scheme plays as a laughable farce – the hapless FBI investigation stages one meeting on a yacht with popped bottles of champagne, another in an extravagant Vegas casino suite. That Dawkins unknowingly skimmed money from the FBI complicates his defense in a federal courtroom; yet unrevealed misconduct, financial or otherwise, on the Vegas trip by D’Angelo prevents FBI testimony in Dawkins’s trial. When D’Angelo’s partner does reveal that she’s FBI to Dawkins in a Times Square hotel suite, he thinks it’s a joke. She offers a deal: give me Rick Pitino, Sean Miller and Andy Miller. Confused and unwilling to rat anyone out, Dawkins asks for a lawyer, and winds up with several machine guns in his face. “I figured they are just going to kill me,” Dawkins says in the film. “I died because of basketball.”

“All of this is absurd, all of this is ridiculous,” said Kondelis. “If people weren’t really going to federal prison, it would be hilarious.” The conviction of Dawkins, along with a few assistant coaches and two Adidas representatives, was both “laughable” and ominous. “For the government to somehow be an enforcer of NCAA regulations is insane,” Kondelis said. “And now there’s a legal precedent that’s been set that if you do break an NCAA rule, you could potentially be convicted of a federal felony.”

The Scheme’s most damning revelation, however, is three previously unreleased wiretapped phone calls between Dawkins and coaches Miller and Wade, which put the blind-eye, nothing-to-see-here indignation of college coaches on blast. After Dawkins’s arrest, both Miller and Wade denied any involvement with him in press conferences which open the film. But on the phone with Dawkins, Miller speaks profanely, as with an old friend; Dawkins says LSU’s Will Wade is “driving up the price” on players and Miller replies: “I’ll tell you what, I’ll give him credit, he’s got a big set of balls on him.”

In a different call, Wade jokes that for a player he’s scouting, “we could compensate him better than the [NBA] rookie minimum” and laments a “fucking strong-ass offer” to another player which was too “tilted towards the family”.

The calls are shocking in their crass lucidity, unshackled from official NCAA performance, but Kondelis hopes any stir they may cause is for “the more noble reasons”. That is, how they illustrate the power inversion of the case. “The whole origin of this case – a three-year undercover investigation, millions of dollars being spent – was to take down big D-1 potential hall-of-fame coaches,” said Kondelis. “And then they don’t. And not only do they not take any of them down, but at some point they do a 180 and the government starts to protect those coaches.

“Christian Dawkins is a 25-year-old African American [man] who’s going to go to federal prison for 18 months for doing the exact same thing that coaches who are older white guys who make $3.5m to $5m a year are [doing],” he said. (Dawkins is appealing against both convictions.)

In the end, The Scheme makes both a solid caper documentary and a strong case for the end of amateurism in college sports – though Kondelis doubts, without collective intervention from high-profile coaches, that it will. “It’s a system that benefits the NCAA, the schools, the coaches,” he said. “They make tons of money on this, and why would they be incentivized to change it?”

Until then, people like Christian Dawkins will periodically take the fall, while everyone else “can continue to pretend to be victims”, said Kondelis. “Everybody can continue to make their millions – millions if you’re a coach, tens of millions if you’re an institution and billions if you’re the NCAA.”

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