Kansas basketball gets out of jail free, but falsehoods are there for all to see — Andscape
After the University of Kansas once again dodged the truth, I called Merl Code.
“I did time in prison for them,” Code said.
Code is the former Adidas consultant who was caught up in the 2017 federal investigation of corruption in college sports. He was convicted of bribery and fraud, served 5½ months in federal prison, and is now trying to reassemble the shattered pieces of his life.
The University of Kansas is the top-ranked men’s basketball team going into the 2023-24 season. On Wednesday, the powers that control the NCAA orchestrated a decision saying that Kansas, its athletic department, and coach Bill Self are not guilty of any major violations stemming from that FBI investigation.
Instead of a postseason ban, Kansas basketball gets a finger-wag and a stern look. Self-dealing and corruption in big-time college sports remain undefeated.
“The panel decision unequivocally confirms our coaches were not involved in – or had knowledge of – payments to student-athletes,” Kansas chancellor Douglas Girod and athletic director Travis Goff said in a statement.
Wait, what? Kansas can’t just take its get-out-of-jail-free card and go about its lucrative business? The chancellor and his AD gonna pop off like this?
Aiight, bet. What these men said is as close to a lie as Allen Fieldhouse is to the Kansas River. It’s reminiscent of President Bill Clinton, while lying about his sexual encounter with Monica Lewinsky, saying, “That depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” The statement is semantically designed to mislead us into thinking that Self, his staff and his superiors – including Goff and Girod – never knew about, much less indulged in, the everyday practice of paying for the services of the best teenage basketball players in the world.
Players such as Zion Williamson, who was being recruited by Kansas in 2017 when the FBI recorded incriminating conversations between Code and Kansas assistant coach Kurt Townsend.
A message to all you rabid Jayhawks fans: I’ve been down this road with y’all before: Where’s the proof? … The university already punished itself… We vacated some wins and took responsibility… blah blah blah What about Duke? If the glove doesn’t fit … Man, miss me with the self-righteous indignation and read the transcript of what Townsend said to Code:
Townsend: “Between me and you, [Williamson’s stepfather, Lee Anderson] asked about some stuff. You know? And I said well, I mean, we’ll talk about that when you decide.”
Code: “I know what he’s asking. He’s asking about opportunities from an occupational perspective. He’s asking for money in the pocket. And he’s asking for housing for him and his family. He’s asking for —”
Townsend: “Yeah, cause they gonna move there. You already know.”
Code: “Yeah, I already know.”
Townsend: “Yeah, but the one I didn’t know is [Williamson’s brother] coming to Kansas. … So I’ll just try to work to figure out a way. Because if that’s what it’s going to take to do it for 10 months, we’re going to have to do it some way … ”
Later in the recorded conversation, Townsend discusses the stepfather asking for Williamson’s brother to come on the family’s official recruiting visit. Townsend said he told the stepfather, “ ‘Well, he could come but we’re not allowed to pay for it.’ But I said, ‘You know we could, I don’t know if they could throw some money into your budget from your AAU team to pay for him to go.’ [Zion’s stepfather] said, ‘Well, that would be big, Coach.’
“I’m just throwing everything out at you … it’s my job, so I’ll talk with Jimmy and see what we can do,” Townsend said.
Jimmy was James Gatto, Code’s superior at Adidas. At the time, Adidas was in the middle of a six-year, $26 million sponsorship deal with the Kansas athletic department. (Kansas football went 1-11 in 2017, so Adidas wasn’t paying Kansas to sell more cleats.) In 2019, Giroud announced a new Adidas contract that paid Kansas $196 million over 14 years. Gatto served prison time after being convicted of paying money to two players who just so happened to sign with Kansas.
Back to Townsend: He is (still) an assistant coach for the Jayhawks. He denies wrongdoing. He is on an FBI wiretap the day after he and his boss, coach Bill Self, visited Williamson’s home. He says on the wiretap that if Williamson commits to Kansas, “we’ll talk about” paying the family under the table. He says that if the family wants the team to cover costs for the other, non-dunking son to attend Kansas along with Zion, “we’re going to have to do it some way.” He says he told the stepfather he’s not allowed to pay for the non-dunker to come on the recruiting trip, but that “they,” meaning Adidas, “could throw some money into your budget from your AAU team to pay for him to go.”
This is all on tape. It’s in the NCAA decision released Wednesday. It is, as they say, what it is.
How does what Townsend said square with the chancellor and AD saying, “our coaches were not involved in – or had knowledge of – payments to student-athletes”?
I emailed that exact question last week to Daniel Berk, the Kansas associate athletic director at the top of their media operation. He did not reply.
I suppose all y’all Jayhawks could say that statement referred to payments that were actually made, not the discussion of potential payments to a kid who would become a college basketball supernova. I suppose you could say there’s no proof that Self suspected what Adidas was doing.
Oh, wait – in his book Black Market: An Insider’s Journey into the High-Stakes World of College Basketball, Code describes an Adidas coaching retreat in the renowned basketball hotbed of Costa Rica, where Self said that “Nike was kicking our a– and we needed more resources and more help on the recruiting trail.”
For me, what happened to Code and the others who were arrested – eight out of 10 of them Black men, while none of the white head coaches were charged or suffered any lasting consequences – is the biggest injustice.
Nobody is surprised that the NCAA, which is controlled by university presidents, athletic directors and conference commissioners, let Kansas off the hook. This is the same confederation that looked past booster violations when UCLA became a dynasty under John Wooden; that let North Carolina walk off unscathed despite hundreds of athletes getting fake grades and credit for nonexistent classes; that permits Will Wade, Sean Miller and Rick Pitino to keep coaching while former Arizona assistant Book Richardson can no longer afford health insurance.
This is the system as it is designed to work. The presidents, ADs and commissioners who run the NCAA refuse to crack down on the name brands that fuel their multibillion-dollar TV contracts. When the FBI scandal broke, these power brokers set up a supposedly Independent Accountability Resolution Process, but kept themselves in charge. Who are the five IARP members who let Kansas off the hook? I couldn’t find their names in the 162-page decision. Were these functionaries influenced, perhaps, by University of Georgia president Jere Morehead, who sits atop both the IARP and the NCAA? What about NBA legend Grant Hill, a real brother with power positions over the IARP and NCAA? I texted Hill – crickets.
So, yeah. Kansas is gonna Kansas.
Code is collateral damage, another disposable Black person whose job was to get Black players by any means necessary. He is living off savings now, unemployable in basketball, and justifiably bitter. He just filed a lawsuit against Adidas, which says he was doing what he was told by his boss at Adidas. Given that the feds argued that Code, Gatto and others defrauded the universities they worked with – only in the alternate universe of NCAA “justice” is Kansas the victim – I don’t believe that Code getting players paid was even a crime against federal or state laws.
“My career has been obliterated, my reputation has been obliterated,” Code told me. “I lost my freedom, I’m a convicted felon. All because I did what I was told to do.”
That’s what makes the University of Kansas continuing to deny the obvious, while awaiting its preseason No. 1 ranking, so morally bankrupt. In a way, the Kansas case was integrity’s last stand. Colleges no longer need to paper-bag cash or funnel money through AAU teams. Thanks to “name, image and likeness” rules, Adidas can pay Kansas star Hunter Dickinson in broad daylight, and Girod doesn’t have to tie himself into a pretzel explaining what happened. Kansas also was the last IARP case – the NCAA is disbanding that particular puppet show. What some of us will remember most from that era are the wiretap transcripts and ruined lives – like Code’s.
“I have the phone call with Kurt where he says he’ll pay for Zion Williamson,” Code said. “Kansas can say they don’t know all day long, but that’s not the truth.”