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Federal Jury Finds 3 Men Guilty In Fraud Case That Has Rocked College Basketball

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

A federal jury this afternoon found three men guilty in a fraud case that has rocked college basketball. They could spend years in prison. This is the first of three cases slated for trial. Together they shed light on the dark side of player recruitment. They focus on under-the-table payments intended to steer top high school talent to certain schools - then to apparel brands and sports agents once those players go pro. Dan Wetzel is a columnist for Yahoo Sports. He closely followed the trial and joins us now. Hey, Dan.

DAN WETZEL: Hey, how are you?

CHANG: Good. So how surprised were you by this outcome?

WETZEL: Well, the federal government has a very high conviction rate, so you should never be too surprised when they win.

CHANG: Fair enough.

WETZEL: However, they did have a challenge in trying to show the jury that this is a crime because the schools who benefited by being given top basketball talent - top recruits are actually the victims here and not the benefactors of great talent who win them games and make them money.

CHANG: Yeah, let's tease that out. Two of these defendants work or worked for Adidas, the company. The third person you've described in your columns as an aspiring sports agent - a sort of middleman. What argument did these defendants try to make to explain why these payments they made to the players were legal?

WETZEL: Well, they never believed that they were - they admitted they had violated NCAA rules.

CHANG: Right. But they said they didn't violate the law.

WETZEL: Did not violate the law - and their belief was - look. We work for Adidas. And we have players who play for Adidas-sponsored summer and AAU basketball teams. And we steer them to schools that have signed contracts - endorsement contracts with Adidas. And we're not trying to hurt those schools, like Kansas or Louisville. We're trying to help them by giving them a great player. So that was their case. The feds said, no, by giving - by paying players, you have rendered them ineligible. And thus, when those players get to those schools, the schools are at risk for NCAA sanctions. And thus, those schools have been defrauded. And because those schools receive federal funds, it's a federal case. And the government won that.

CHANG: So a lot of evidence was presented in court over the past few weeks. What were some of the new details that came to light about how this kind of player recruitment works? Give us some details.

WETZEL: Well, I think almost anybody who's seen the movies or follows college sports at all and those players get paid in the recruiting process to pick a school. But certainly the details of just how high tech it is - it's less about boosters giving money or $100 handshakes or any of the old kind of ideas as much as it's a multinational shoe-and-apparel company wiring $40,000, $30,000 to people in an effort to win them over.

CHANG: To high school students?

WETZEL: High school kids. This includes one of the players - a kid named Brian Bowen Jr. - was paid $25,000 to play just one summer of AAU basketball for an Adidas-sponsored team. Adidas got him 25.

CHANG: Wow, not bad.

WETZEL: That's a great summer job.

CHANG: It sure is. Now...

WETZEL: It also turned out to be illegal.

CHANG: Right. Now, does this trial impact any current college basketball players?

WETZEL: A few have been suspended but nothing major. Most of the people who are involved in this have already played and have moved on to the NBA. But kids have had to sit out a year and things like that. And it's only really affected a few college coaches - most notably Rick Pitino - but not too many. So there has not been widespread suspensions or anything like that although if the NCAA investigated, there certainly could be.

CHANG: OK, all right. That's Dan Wetzel, columnist for Yahoo Sports. Thank you very much for joining us.

WETZEL: Thank you - real pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.