March Madness is here! And with it, the annual ritual of filling out our brackets and trying to avoid picking a Final Four team that gets busted out by a 14th or 15th seed early in the Tournament. College basketball is a multi-billion dollar industry and the NCAA Tournament is a must watch for sports’ fans. But, unfortunately, college basketball and many teams playing in the Tournament are under a dark cloud. A federal investigation hangs over the sport which has resulted in the arrest of 10 men, including former assistant coaches and agents in connection with fraud and corruption schemes that the FBI has been investigating since 2015. Many of you may ask, why is the FBI investigating college basketball? Isn’t that the job of the NCAA? And, what federal crimes could college coaches and sports’ agents commit trying to lure recruits to their schools or signing them as clients?
A good place to start is understanding what the FBI investigates. Usually, the FBI investigates federal offenses like white collar crime, large drug conspiracies (especially involving gangs, i.e. MS-13), public corruption cases and terrorism. But the FBI also investigates federal crimes when the crimes are connected to and/or impact large businesses. College basketball is big business and a huge part of the fabric of American sports. Looking at March Madness, the NCAA, in 2016, raked in a record 1.6 billion in revenue from media rights, ticket sales, corporate sponsorship, and television ads during the 3 week tournament. Before the first tip-off, fans will fill out 70 million brackets, and by the championship game, gamble over 9 million dollars. Because of the big money and sport’s popularity, the FBI clearly has a compelling interest in investigating allegations of corruption and fraud.
FBI Investigating Federal Crimes
But what are the Federal crimes? The allegations are that players were paid money, i.e. bribes, by agents under the directions of assistant coaches to steer them to certain schools. Bribery is a federal offense (18 U.S.C. § 201). In addition, if the bribes were facilitated over the telephone or some type of internet messaging system, then the offense also becomes known as wire fraud (18 U.S.C. § 1343), a federal offense the FBI often investigates. If the fraud/bribery occurred via the U.S. mail, then the offense becomes mail fraud, another serious federal crime.
The FBI also has substantial powers the NCAA doesn’t possess. For example, North Carolina State, on January 17, 2018, received a grand jury subpoena from the Justice Department to produce records regarding the college basketball investigation. Working with federal prosecutors, the FBI can obtain records, interview witnesses, and subpoena witnesses to appear before a grand jury. The Feds can also “cut deals” with witnesses who are targets/subjects of the investigation, meaning they can offer the witnesses immunity from prosecution or lesser charges to get them to cooperate and offer testimony against others who were involved.
The federal investigation of college basketball should not prevent our enjoyment of this great sports event and the chance of winning the office bracket pool. However, it is also clear that a dark cloud hovers over the sport with many coaches and programs wondering if a federal grand jury subpoena is waiting for them once the season is over.
If you need a lawyer for a criminal or Federal case, call Attorney W. Joseph Edwards (614-309-0243) who has over 25 years experience representing clients in these legal matters.