Stephen L. Hill Jr., a partner in the Kansas City office of the law firm Dentons, is quick to say that he doesn’t have the same knowledge Kansas Athletics does regarding the recent federal court case into college basketball corruption.
He can, however, give some insight into how a similar situation was handled by another blue-blood program — while perhaps giving a potential road map into how KU might proceed with Silvio De Sousa.
Hill, while serving as a U.S. Attorney in the late 1990s, prosecuted the Myron Piggie case, which also dealt with under-the-table payments made to college basketball players. When the investigation was over, Hill says part of his responsibility was to go to schools to share information about what had been discovered.
One conversation was with Duke. Small forward Corey Maggette had signed a statement saying he’d accepted money from his AAU coach Piggie, though Hill said prosecutors believed Duke was unaware of that payment.
Duke acted quickly after that talk, self-reporting the matter to the NCAA while disclosing what it had learned from its own investigation. Five years later, the NCAA ruled that the school would not be penalized because it had no previous knowledge that Maggette was an ineligible player.
It was an important day for Duke; the decision meant no vacated victories after the fact, and also no banners taken down.
Hill believes an important lesson can be learned from the Duke-Maggette example.
“Any school in a similar situation today,” Hill said, “might want to follow that same course.”
Which brings us to De Sousa.
One can see some similarities between his situation and Maggette’s. KU might have believed De Sousa was an eligible player last year — the NCAA cleared him in January — but that now could be in doubt based on recent testimony in federal court.
T.J. Gassnola, a former Adidas consultant, said he gave De Sousa’s guardian Fenny Falmagne $2,500 so De Sousa could take online classes. That, in and of itself, could make De Sousa an ineligible player, with KU and others now aware of that statement.
So KU appears to have two options. It could self-report to the NCAA on Gassnola’s payment to De Sousa’s guardian, making it more likely the NCAA would look favorably upon the school when it comes to potential punishment. Or it could play De Sousa while assuming that he won’t later be deemed ineligible.
Hill, from his previous work with the NCAA, knows which route he’d advise athletic programs to take.
“In my experience, the NCAA and its infractions committee looks at how the school interacted with the information and what steps it took to try to be in compliance with the applicable rules,” Hill said. “So any school today, I think, would have a better narrative if they could demonstrate to the NCAA that they had made a good-faith effort to find out what had occurred and communicated that in an open and complete manner.”
KU’s ties to this federal case go beyond De Sousa.
On Tuesday, the defense attempted to get a wiretapped phone call between former Adidas employee Merl Code and KU assistant Kurtis Townsend submitted into evidence. According to the defense, after Code talks about the financial demands needed to bring recruit Zion Williamson to a school, Townsend said, “So, I’ve got to just try to work and figure out a way. Because if that’s what it takes to get him for 10 months, we’re going to have to do it some way.” Williamson ended up committing to Duke.
Townsend and KU coach Bill Self also took part in text conversations with Gassnola about Falmagne. Gassnola told Townsend, “Hit me when you can,” and Townsend replied, “Coach Self just talked to Fenny. Let me know how it goes.”
Gassnola texted Self, saying he talked with Falmagne. Self asked “we good” over text, and Gassnola replied “always,” saying this was light work and the ball was in Falmagne’s court now. That same day, Gassnola texted Self to call him when he had five minutes and he was alone. The two had a five-minute, six-second phone conversation — a call that was not wiretapped by the FBI nor played in court.
Depending on how those text messages and phone calls are interpreted, they potentially could fall under the NCAA rulebook’s section on unethical conduct violations: “Knowing involvement in offering or providing a prospective or an enrolled student-athlete an improper inducement or extra benefit or improper financial aid,” or “arranging a meeting between a student athlete and an agent, financial advisor or a representative of an agent or advisor (e.g., ‘runner’).”
NCAA president Mark Emmert told USA Today this week that the NCAA investigators would not research any allegations presented in the federal court case until told they could do so by the government. That means potential punishment for schools could come in months or years.
Hill, though, doesn’t see that as an opportunity for schools to believe they don’t have to follow through on compliance in the interim.
“I think the (NCAA) model has always been a self-policing model, followed by enforcement action by the NCAA if necessary,” Hill said. “It’s consistent that you’re going to be in a better position if you can demonstrate that you did it on your own as opposed to you were forced to do it. I think any school that heard the evidence or read about the evidence would probably think long and hard about trying to get in that position.”
So where does KU go from here? The athletic department has not yet responded to this week’s testimony, deferring to KU spokesman Joe Monaco, who has referred to a previous statement: “It is not appropriate for the university to comment while legal proceedings are ongoing. As we have said all along, the prosecution has not suggested any wrongdoing by the university or its coaches. We will continue to cooperate as requested throughout the trial.”
The trial is likely to end next week, though. Closing arguments were completed Thursday, and the jury will begin deliberations Monday morning.
Perhaps then, in the days after the verdict is read, KU’s next step will become more clear.
Based on his dealings with the NCAA in the past, Hill believes a proactive stance would be best.
“I think it’s common sense that you want to create a narrative that says, ‘We’re ready to tell you what we’ve learned,’ as opposed to waiting and having the NCAA knock on your door,” Hill said. “Why not create a true impression that you are acting on this as quickly as you can?”