NCAA College Basketball

‘The Scheme’ makes college basketball look bad, and the FBI look worse

(CNN)If you’re missing the NCAA tournament, HBO’s “The Scheme” will make you less wistful — or at least, provide a reminder of big-money college basketball’s grimy underbelly, exploring a corruption scandal that makes the NCAA look bad, and actually makes the FBI look worse.

The irony is that this HBO Sports project was scheduled to air during the tournament. Instead, it’s playing at time when fans are understandably pining for such events, now that March Madness has been canceled due to public-health concerns over coronavirus.

Sports fans should be familiar with the broad strokes of “The Scheme,” which focuses on the two-year FBI undercover investigation that exposed a plot to bribe assistant college basketball coaches to steer players to a management company run by 26-year-old Christian Dawkins. Four coaches were arrested, involving universities that included USC, Arizona, Auburn and Oklahoma State.

In “The Scheme,” Dawkins — currently appealing his conviction for bribery-– sits for an extensive interview that casts doubts on the FBI’s tactics, while matter-of-factly discussing the extent to which coaches and agents flout NCAA rules by funneling money to prospective players and their families, despite indignant denials from coaches.

Those sequences strike the sharpest nerve, as director Pat Kondelis illustrates the depths of corruption within college basketball, while Dawkins seeks to poke holes in the government’s efforts. As he tells it, he had no need to bribe coaches because he was already paying players, despite the undercover agent urging him to do so. (Nobody from the FBI or NCAA would participate in the documentary, it’s noted at the end.)

In what’s sure to be the most-talked-about sequence, Dawkins describes what he calls Oscar-worthy press conferences by head coaches insisting they didn’t interact with him. Kondelis then juxtaposes statements by Arizona’s Sean Miller and LSU’s Will Wade with wiretapped phone calls of the two men engaging in chummy conversations with Dawkins, with Wade at one point joking about how much a player would be paid.

HBO's 'The Scheme.'HBO's 'The Scheme.'

HBO’s ‘The Scheme.’

The FBI, meanwhile, engineered the sting by tossing around money, with an agent masquerading as a shadowy financier who rented yachts, handed out envelopes filled with cash and paid for lavish hotel suites. During another recorded call, Dawkins brags to what he thinks is his benefactor, “I can go to Arizona’s practices like I’m on the team.”

Dawkins makes no bones about paying players, saying, “I don’t see anything wrong with it.” The documentary makes clear that huge money surrounds top recruits, who generate lucrative contracts for coaches, while filling university coffers via TV rights deals and sponsorship agreements with shoe companies like Nike and Adidas. (Both CNN and HBO are part of WarnerMedia, which partners with CBS to broadcast the NCAA Tournament.)

As Yahoo Sports’ Dan Wetzel notes, each potential first-round pick amounts to a lottery ticket that’s certain to cash out. Because of that incentive and the arcane nature of NCAA rules promoting amateurism, he says, “You end up dealing with unsavory people or ridiculous circumstances.”

“The Scheme” takes about 25 minutes — most of it devoted to Dawkins’ biography and early life — before the narrative really kicks into gear, but after that, it’s a riveting, meticulously detailed guide to a system that seemingly invites rule breaking at every turn.

Not that its revelations should come as a complete surprise to anyone. “The Scheme” opens with a quote by the late basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian — a figure who had his share of battles with the NCAA — that reads, “Nine out of 10 schools are cheating. The other one is in last place.”

More than anything, at this particular moment “The Scheme” feels like an exercise in cognitive dissonance — demonstrating that it’s possible to miss college basketball and still be clear eyed about its abundant flaws. If that’s not as exciting as a buzzer beater, for now, it’s the next best thing.

“The Scheme” premieres March 31 at 9 p.m. on HBO.

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