On The Will Wade Controversy At LSU

There is an entire book that can be written on the mess which has arisen from the stellar, SEC Championship regular season title just completed by head coach Will Wade and the LSU basketball team, and it’s almost assured at least one will be. So far, though, we’re noticing there are lots of misconceptions, myths and inaccurate hot-takes being thrown around following the suspensions Friday and Saturday of Wade and star freshman Javonte Smart after Yahoo! Sports broke a story in which Wade is on a transcript of a federal wiretap discussing what sounds like offers of benefits in violation of NCAA rules to Smart while the latter was a recruit.

A few facts ought to be run through before we get too far into this discussion.

First, Wade isn’t under investigation by the FBI. There are people saying things to that effect, and that’s sloppy verbiage which is substantially wrong. What Wade is being dragged into is a federal case brought by the US Attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York against three men who work for Adidas, alleging that they’ve essentially been scamming universities and bribing college basketball coaches to steer players into shoe deals and to sign with sports agents. Where Wade has been dragged into the case is that he had a number of phone conversations with one of the men, Christian Dawkins – a middleman serving as a consultant for Adidas, who was in a position to broker recruits to coaches but apparently never actually brokered one to Wade. Dawkins’ attorney, a man named Steve Haney, has said that if the US Attorney in New York continues to press his case against Dawkins Haney will essentially burn all of college basketball down.

To that end Haney, it certainly appears, has worked a deal with Yahoo! Sports in which periodically excerpts from transcripts of phone conversations Dawkins had with college coaches would appear in highly sensational stories. One such story involved Arizona head coach Sean Miller discussing a $100,000 payment to star forward DeAndre Ayton, who played one year for the Wildcats before being selected in last year’s NBA Draft. Twice Wade has surfaced amid Yahoo! Sports’ fare – once in declining to bid on a player Dawkins was brokering who ultimately signed with Florida State, and last week with a transcript discussing, we are to assume, Smart’s recruitment. Dawkins wasn’t involved with Smart; the conversation seems to involve a different middleman, and a “strong-ass offer” that Wade is said to be making to the former Scotlandville High School superstar.

But there are other programs which have been tainted by leaked transcripts of the wiretaps. Former NC State coach Mark Gottfried has been dinged for paying players, and a former NC State assistant coach was charged in the Adidas investigation. Kansas coaches are on tape discussing cash and other benefits offered to superstar freshman forward Zion Williamson, who now plays at Duke. Kansas signed another player Silvio De Souza, who was ruled ineligible for taking benefits the investigation smoked out which also implicates the University of Maryland’s program. An assistant coach at Auburn pled guilty in the case, as have assistants at Arizona, USC and Oklahoma State.

Look for more revelations touching these programs, and new revelations touching others. From the beginning, this investigation was always going to involve dozens of high-profile college basketball programs. Will Wade is nowhere near the only coach – nor is LSU the only program – involved.

Wade just happens to be the flavor of the month for media outrage, mostly because LSU is 26-5 and 16-2 in the SEC and could, with three wins in the SEC Tournament in Nashville this week, be a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. LSU is hot, so leaking the Wade transcripts does a maximum of damage in what looks like a campaign by the defense in these trials to create political pressure on the prosecution to cut a deal.

But given that Haney said he would trash college basketball to save his client, LSU is likely to be off the front page very shortly as other revelations surface. We’re now into March Madness, and it’s quite foreseeable there will be a drip-drip-drip of transcript snippets implicating college programs expected to be in the NCAA Tournament coming out of the defense.

So that’s the environment LSU is operating in right now. Before it’s all said and done it’s a good bet half the Power 5 conference programs will be tainted by this investigation and these wiretaps, and when the NCAA begins its investigation the mess will be so large that the programs involved might well be able to escape the kind of draconian sanctions that have been meted out in the past – you can’t put half the ACC or SEC on probation, after all, because the lost money to the NCAA will be too severe.

Is Will Wade likely guilty of NCAA violations? What’s on those wiretaps makes that pretty clear. On the other hand, everybody knows that offering inducements and benefits to recruits is how college basketball recruiting works. The old analogy of a speeding ticket – namely, that it isn’t much of a defense to getting one that others were also speeding – doesn’t really apply here, as you literally cannot get on the highway that is college basketball without speeding, or else you’ll be run over. Virtually every player considered as a big-time recruit is getting something under the table from someone, and one can make a good argument that they should – after all, no matter how good a Javonte Smart might be he’s not guaranteed to make millions of dollars in the NBA and so whatever money he can leverage himself into as a college player might be the best he’ll do for himself playing basketball.

There are no victims here. The players who get paid aren’t victims and the schools and their boosters, and the shoe companies, are hardly victims either – they’re willing participants who are looking to secure the services of superstar players and product endorsers. It’s a system everybody decries as sleazy, but it works exceptionally well. NCAA basketball is, after all, a multi-billion dollar enterprise, and this time of year the whole country is rapt with attention to the NCAA Tournament. Without the Zion Williamsons, DeAndre Aytons and even Javonte Smarts of the world, that interest and the money which flows with it wouldn’t be there.

And without the grease for the wheels that those under-the-table benefits provide, the game itself would be worse off. Remember, college athletics is practiced nowhere else like it is in America; top 18 year old basketball players in Spain or Germany, for example, play on club teams few people care about, which is why so many of those kids end up in American colleges instead to train for professional hoops careers. If there were no inducements offered to American 18-year old basketball stars to attend college, you can bet they’d forego the college game for whatever club teams or developmental or minor-league opportunities would certainly spring up, and those would without question look a lot more like the shady AAU circuit than the college game does at present. And that would hurt the players, because the coaching wouldn’t be as good as it is in college ball and the public would be a lot less interested, meaning the opportunities to create a sellable brand as a product endorser would be far less. Ben Simmons got a $20 million shoe contract after one year playing at LSU that he whined incessantly about having to do; had he not been on TV repeatedly during that one year that figure would surely have been less.

All of which is to say that yes, Wade’s statements on those transcripts are embarrassing and look bad for the program, but he certainly won’t be alone by the time all this is done and the level of panic LSU should currently have as a result of them, particularly when the NCAA has not commenced an investigation of LSU and won’t do so until the trials of Dawkins and his compatriots are concluded, is properly fairly low. There is some safety in numbers here, and LSU will be one of many. In fact, it might be more likely the NCAA calls some sort of summit to reform its rules and allow for some of what’s been discussed on these tapes in a format it can police than to try to make examples of anyone – how do you single out an LSU or NC State when those wiretaps show Duke, North Carolina, Kansas and Kentucky, for example, are doing the exact same thing?

And yet, when the Wade transcripts surfaced Thursday, LSU’s top brass committed what looks like an incredibly dumb mistake. They called Wade onto the carpet to discuss the media reports. There is even a rumor there were NCAA officials set to listen in on the phone at that meeting. We find that one a bit hard to believe, though.

To request a briefing from Wade wouldn’t seem to be so unreasonable a move given the bad press the school has gotten, sure. But the problem is Wade has been subpoenaed to testify in the Dawkins trial about those wiretaps, and his testimony is set for April. Wade can’t discuss much of anything which is on those wiretaps before he testifies in court, or else he puts himself in an untenable situation. That’s why his attorney forbade him to have a meeting with the top brass at LSU to talk about these issues.

So Wade declined, and he was suspended as a result. His job status has been in limbo ever since, and as time goes by it’s starting to look less and less likely he’s going to be able to return as LSU’s coach – something Tiger basketball fans are in agony over, as Wade is clearly an elite-level coach who took a team which was 2-16 in the SEC the year before he arrived and flipped that record to 16-2 in just two seasons. It doesn’t matter how many players you buy, to do this in a top-level conference like the SEC is evidence you’re a coaching superstar.

The fans get this, which is why on Saturday there was an outpouring of venom toward Athletic Director Joe Alleva for having suspended Wade. The general sentiment is that whatever punishment may be coming LSU’s way is probably set in stone, and by themselves those transcripts aren’t evidence of much of anything, so why unilaterally disarm in the middle of the season?

There is a counter argument to this, which is that LSU was rapidly becoming the chief villain of college basketball and the damage would be irreparable absent some action. Dick Vitale, ESPN’s marquee college basketball color analyst, has for several days trashed Wade both on ESPN’s air and on Twitter over the transcripts, displaying a radioactive level of hypocrisy in doing so – Vitale was trashing Wade as a cheater while calling Saturday’s Auburn-Tennessee game, coached as it was by Bruce Pearl, who had been suspended from coaching for five years at Tennessee for cheating before getting the Auburn job, and Rick Barnes, who at Texas was enmeshed in an academic fraud scandal. Vitale’s hypocrisy was no worse than that of the other talking heads trashing LSU, but there is a real fear that appearing unrepentant about those transcripts sets the school up to be slaughtered by the NCAA for the dreaded “lack of institutional control.”

The answer to this is that LSU needs some sort of counter-narrative to what’s on those transcripts, and building one without being able to include Wade in the making of it is close to impossible. That said, the way this probably should have been handled would have been to send Smart out with a statement stating (1) he didn’t sign with LSU because he got paid, and (2) he hasn’t gotten anything untoward from LSU. Both statements are almost certainly true regardless of what else might be the case. Smart was recruited by all the usual suspects in college basketball, including pretty much everybody who has already been named in this investigation, and it’s assured that he was offered inducements by most if not all of them. Given that, the “strong-ass offer” Wade would have made him would have included getting to help rebuild the hometown team into a nationally relevant program, playing with a bunch of guys he already knew and having his mother and family on hand to share in the whole experience. That’s something none of those others can match, regardless of any other remuneration was on the table. And similarly, whatever Smart might have gotten it didn’t come from LSU – these things always come from third parties, and in most cases they come from parties not affiliated with the schools. That’s what those middlemen do, and it’s why the NCAA can’t ever prove anything.

We’re told Smart and his mother spent three hours with LSU officials Friday discussing the media reports and favorably impressed their interlocutors that nothing untoward was given to them for his having chosen LSU. By tomorrow, the expectation seems to be that he’ll be reinstated for the postseason.

Wade put out a statement Friday essentially saying that when all the facts come out the story will look a lot different than it does now. Beyond that he’s not going to say any more until he testifies at that trial, and nobody really ought to ask him to – if Wade were to go into a room with Alleva, LSU president F. King Alexander and/or members of the university’s Board of Supervisors and discuss anything on those transcripts it’s a good bet he’ll subject all of them to being subpoenaed by Dawkins’ defense counsel as well, and at that point everybody could be in a perjury trap. Be careful what you ask for.

Alleva’s response to what happened to him Saturday is that he’s now in something of a media offensive. There’s a Sports Illustrated piece written yesterday by Ross Dellenger, who was formerly the LSU beat writer at the Baton Rouge Advocate, which intimates that Alleva’s hands are tied and that the guy really calling the shots here is LSU Board of Supervisors chairman James Williams, a plaintiff attorney from New Orleans who was appointed by Gov. John Bel Edwards and whose career highlights include a good deal of public activism in Baton Rouge amid the Alton Sterling mess, having served as the attorney for Dorian Johnson, the confederate of Michael Brown’s amid the Ferguson, Missouri mess (it was Johnson who alleged that Brown was shot with his hands raised in a defenseless position by a police officer, giving rise to the fraudulent “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” meme), and serving as Mary Landrieu’s attorney in 2014 when opponents challenged her residency in Louisiana.

Dellenger’s piece, which looks a whole lot like it was fed to him by Alleva, brings the political angle to bear, because Williams entering the picture means Gov. John Bel Edwards’ fingers are now on the handling of the case. One wonders what that would portend for Alleva’s continued tenure – the fans have disliked him for a long time, and that went critical on Saturday, but in trying to deflect that anger, perhaps properly to parties more responsible, Alleva might well have angered his erstwhile protectors.

And in any event, Alleva hired Wade. So if Wade must go to satisfy the NCAA and the talking heads, it’s hard to see how Alleva could survive it. The fans won’t accept that, nor will the boosters. That would seem to put Alleva in Wade’s camp, at least to get through the season – and who knows what would happen if LSU were to catch a run in the NCAA Tournament? – with the rest to be determined after the Dawkins trial is over.

But one can’t escape the feeling that what’s most likely here is a worst-case scenario – Wade’s coaching career at LSU is finished, with little or no prospect of a replacement who is even remotely on his level, and even less prospect that LSU Basketball can avoid a trip into the SEC cellar as the current players take to the four winds and the NCAA piles onto the misery by making an example of the program in the knowledge that LSU Basketball being in the dumpster doesn’t really cost them anything (at least not compared to a Kansas or Duke). And if that is to be the program’s fate, the question is whether anybody among LSU’s top brass, or beyond, is to be held accountable for such a fine mess.

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