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HBO's 'The Scheme' Brings the Dark Side of College Sports Into the Light
March 31, 2020  | By David Hinckley

Americans really don't want to believe there could be corruption, double-dealing, cynicism, green or crass motivations in their beloved college sports.

Thing is, there is, and it's laid out matter-of-factly in The Scheme, a fascinating production of HBO Sports that premieres Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET.

The Scheme focuses on Christian Dawkins (top), who was convicted of being the point man – the "quarterback," in his own phrase – for a system that used monetary incentives to steer prime prospects toward particular colleges.

That is, to pay college basketball players, which is illegal under the rules of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).

In the view of Christian Dawkins, and many others, it is the NCAA that's responsible for the corruption because it's a tax-exempt organization that makes billions of dollars for itself and its member colleges by using players – who can legally only be given a scholarship equivalent to the cost of their education – as free labor.

The Scheme, directed by Pat Kondelis, is sympathetic to that viewpoint.

Dawkins' sport was basketball, and he set up his own sports agency, representing players in their negotiations for professional contracts.

Not surprisingly, that field relies heavily on relationships, contacts, favors, word of mouth, and general "people skills." Dawkins had been working on all that since he was 12-years-old and publishing a newsletter on the best high school prospects in his home state of Michigan.

Since his father, Lou, was an iconic basketball coach at Michigan's Saginaw High School, Christian already had some shortcuts into the game. He parlayed everything aggressively and skillfully enough so that by his early 20s, he was on track to become a young wunderkind in the agent game.

That lasted until 2017 when he was busted by the FBI for facilitating illegal payments.

The FBI, which did not participate in this film, said it was really after bigger fish, top-line college coaches like Rick Pitino of Louisville and Sean Miller of the University of Arizona. But the agency apparently decided that busting Dawkins and nine other people, including four assistant coaches at big schools, would send the warning that corruption in college basketball would not be tolerated.

Dawkins, speaking at length for the first time about his actions and his subsequent felony conviction, doesn't deny the payments.

Rather, he claims he was set up – that the FBI sent two sting agents, Jeff D'Angelo and Kim Bailey, to fund his agency startup provided he would set up cash payments that would enable them to establish "relationships" with coaches and players and others inside the college basketball world.

The scenario was actually more complicated than that with enough other shady characters that some viewers will get lost in the tangled web. But Dawkins' real argument is that if the FBI or anyone else were serious about cleaning up NCAA sports, they'd go after the whales, not the minnows.

Perhaps the most striking moment in this two-hour documentary comes from a graphic that shows how many hundreds of millions of dollars sneaker companies like Nike and Adidas pay to universities to have players wear their shoes.

Dan Wetzel, whose book Sole Influence explored the influence of sneaker companies on school sports, drily comments that anyone who thinks a university can take $250 million from a sneaker company and not be beholden to that company is blind.

As this suggests, The Scheme essentially presents Dawkins' side of the story. While it doesn't argue he's innocent, it is sympathetic to his contention he was simply working a system that's been in place forever.

Dawkins himself comes off as a hustler, a guy who's really smart though maybe not always as smart as he thinks. That doesn't invalidate his argument, or the argument of others, that NCAA sports are riddled with corruption, sleight of hand, and hypocrisy.

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