NCAA: Rick Pitino Authorized Bribery of UL Recruit

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Merl Code's book "Black Market," which paints former Louisville men’s basketball coach Rick Pitino as complicit in the bribery scheme behind the 2017 recruitment of Brian Bowen, prompted the NCAA’s Complex Case Unit (CCU) to lodge additional allegations of infractions months after submitting its Amended Notice of Allegations on Sept. 30, 2021.

Based on Code’s published account of his conversations with adidas executives as a consultant, NCAA officials allege Pitino was aware of and authorized a $100,000 offer to Bowen’s father, according to USA Today.

Pitino has vigorously denied the claim and his attorney provided Hanover Square Press some prepublication publicity with an unsuccessful cease-and-desist letter before the book’s March 1 release.

Code wrote that Bowen became ineligible “because of payments that I helped facilitate at the request of his father and the Cardinals basketball program with the approval of both the Louisville and adidas hierarchies.”

More specifically, Code implicated Pitino as a party to the payments. "As a consultant for adidas, I did not act on my own, nor could I have done so," Code wrote, as reported by USA Today. "I simply ran the proposition by my bosses, who did the same after consulting with Rick Pitino, and the answer that came back from up high was, 'Rick wants our help. Get it done.'"

Pitino, now the head coach at Iona College, responded to Code’s claims with a February Twitter post in which he wrote, "For the 10th time, I have no idea who Merle (sic) Code is and why he's using me and others to be relevant."

In his letter to Hanover Square, attorney Steven Stapleton wrote there was no documentary evidence to substantiate Code’s claims and that Bowen’s father and Code’s co-conspirators, Christian Dawkins and T.J. Gassnola, all stated Pitino was unaware of the payments.

Neither Pitino nor Stapleton has responded to USA Today's requests for comment.

In its response to the NCAA’s Complex Case Unit’s new allegations, Louisville characterizes Code’s claims as “triple hearsay” — Code's version of what adidas executive James Gatto told him Pitino had said — and the CCU’s reliance on a book by a “convicted fraudster” as “wildly improper.” Both Code and Gatto were sentenced to prison terms for their role in the bribery scheme. Both declined to be interviewed by NCAA investigators.

Though federal rules of evidence generally treat hearsay as inadmissible, the NCAA's evidentiary rules are not as strict. Without subpoena power or the ability to compel testimony, NCAA bylaws further restrict infractions cases by prohibiting the use of confidential sources, according to USA Today.

Yet hearing panels are not required to be convinced of an allegation's veracity beyond a reasonable doubt and are allowed broad discretion to base decisions "on information presented to it that it determines to be credible, persuasive and of a kind on which reasonably prudent persons rely in the conduct of serious affairs."

“Reasonably prudent people would not rely on statements made in Code’s book to guide their conduct of serious matters because Code was convicted of engaging in a criminal conspiracy to commit fraud relating to the subject matter on which the CCU is relying,” Louisville’s response states. “… Including sensational allegations in his book, regardless of their accuracy, is an obvious path to goose book sales (and Code’s earnings) and, perhaps in the eyes of some, lessen his culpability for the crimes he committed and rehabilitate his image.”

Citing the Independent Accountability Resolution Process case management plan issued last June, Louisville contends attempts to further amend the CCU’s amended notice of allegations “would be procedurally improper and manifestly prejudicial to Louisville.”

According to the case timeline posted on the IARP website, Louisville submitted its response on May 16. But because that timeline had not been updated to reflect developments beyond the end of March until July 22, the existence of the additional allegations and Louisville’s response to them were neither widely known nor previously reported.

The Courier-Journal of Louisville filed an open-records request for the document July 22 and received it July 29.

As of Sunday afternoon, the online timeline had yet to acknowledge Louisville’s June 17-19 hearing before the accountability resolution process panel in Los Angeles.

Louisville rejects the credibility of the claim that Code and adidas were involved in the scheme, which culminated in an undercover FBI agent offering Augustine between $11,000 and $12,700 in cash.

As it did in its previous responses, Louisville has gone to considerable lengths to debunk the idea of adidas as a “representative of the university’s athletic interests,” because of the sportswear company’s sponsorship agreement with the school. The effectiveness of this argument, which has also been advanced by the University of Kansas, could determine how the IARP interprets several of the allegations stemming from Bowen’s recruitment and, in turn, the severity of Louisville's potential sanctions.

The CCU contends adidas “went far beyond providing apparel at no cost,” to Louisville and anointed the school one of its three “flagship” programs, “above all other institutions with whom it had sponsorship agreements.” Louisville responded that the differences perceived by the CCU “are not, in fact, differences at all;” and attached charts to its response showing performance bonuses, marketing funds and internship programs were common in college sponsorship deals with adidas and its main rivals, Nike and Under Armour.

“There can be no reasonable dispute that the key terms in the university’s adidas contract are widespread in the apparel sponsorship context,” Louisville’s response says, as reported by USA Today. “If the (IARP) panel holds that the existence of the terms referenced in the CCU reply caused Adidas to become a booster of the university, the fallout will not be limited to Louisville.”

Here, Louisville may be hard-pressed to circumvent the NCAA’s established position, according to USA Today.

“The institution has accepted no responsibility for the conduct of adidas and its agents,” the CCU said in its April 25 response to the school’s earlier arguments. “The institution asserts that adidas and its agents were not representatives of the institution’s athletic interests, i.e. boosters, arguing the enforcement staff’s and CCU’s analysis is novel, unprecedented and was never contemplated by the NCAA membership. Not so.

“Not only did the membership contemplate this scenario, they feared shoe apparel company involvement and influence in the recruitment of elite student-athletes and put safeguards into place in an attempt to prevent precisely what occurred in this case.”

As reported by USA Today, Pitino anticipated potential problems in this area long before Bowen’s signing. In 2014, near the end of a press conference at Louisville, the then-Cardinals' coach decried the influence of shoe companies in recruiting, but acknowledged the difficulty of addressing the issue “because our pockets are lined with their money.”

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