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Federal Fraud Case Could Put Several College Basketball Coaches In Prison


March Madness starts in just over a week. And this year, a cloud hangs over the NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Tournament. Documents from an ongoing federal probe into bribery and fraud allege a shadow world involving big money, secret deals and marquee names from the world of college basketball. Journalists Pete Thamel and Pat Forde reviewed some of those documents and broke the story for Yahoo Sports. We asked Pete Thamel to unwind the story.

PETE THAMEL: On September 26, Ari, the FBI busted into the homes and hotel rooms of 10 men affiliated with basketball and arrested them for a variety of charges. They included bribery, wire fraud, money laundering. And what was found is they were illicitly either taking bribes to send young men to different financial planners and business managers or using money to steer players to different colleges and universities. It's an intricate scheme that went from sneaker company executives to four college assistant coaches all the way down to AAU amateur coaches.

SHAPIRO: And you've uncovered ties to 20 Division I programs, more than 25 players. I mean, how pervasive was this?

THAMEL: It was essentially so pervasive and such an ingrained part of the system that they have addressed it in what I feel like is a nontraditional way. And there's conversation. Larry Scott, the commissioner of the Pac-12, has come out and said, you know, rules need to change. In my 20 years of covering college sports, Ari, I've never seen one story elicit as much significant conversation for wholesale change as this story has.

SHAPIRO: Can you just tell us the story of one college athlete who you found out about as you were researching whose story really shocked you?

THAMEL: Ari, I think the story that - when you really look at it in the micro, and you look at it through the criminal complaints and the court documents that gave the best prism to the system was a young man by the name of Brian Bowen. His recruitment to Louisville, where the criminal complaints alleged he received a six-figure payment via Adidas to attend Louisville, led to the firing of Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino. Bowen was a very good high school basketball player. But he was not what we would call a one and done. He was not guaranteed to just playing college for one year and then leave. And to see the market and to read the conversations in the federal documents about, essentially, the bidding and the behind the scenes maneuvering - OK. If there's a market for the No. 21 player in the country or 19 player in the country, what's the market like for the No. 3 player in the country?

SHAPIRO: Is this going to change March Madness, which kicks off in just over a week?

THAMEL: I don't think it will significantly. But I do think by the next March Madness, because there's a commission headed by Condoleezza Rice to change college basketball - the findings are expected to come after the Final Four - I do think we will see the sport be different. I just hesitate to think there is going to be three recommendations in a report, and it's going to change decades of behavior.

SHAPIRO: So what will change decades of behavior? Or is this just the way it is and always will be, despite the fact that it's illegal?

THAMEL: I do think we're going to see some macro change that attempts, hopefully, to include the student athletes who are making the money and the reasons why people are watching March Madness. I mean, you have the coaches making up to $5 million a year in college basketball, some of them even more. And the players have long been due some type of slice for what they're bringing. But I think it's naive to say there's going to be changes, and there's going to be no more under-the-table payments and no more corruption.

SHAPIRO: Pete Thamel, senior writer for Yahoo Sports, thanks for joining us today.

THAMEL: Ari, thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BLACK KEYS' "BLACK MUD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.