Vahe Gregorian

The NCAA allegations against Kansas Jayhawks have potentially seismic ramifications

If you love college basketball, chances are you’ve learned to compartmentalize the essential conflicts and dilemmas the modern game presents:

The often shadowy path that leads many celebrated players to end up with the blue-blood programs year after year; the fact that fraudulent dynamic smears the integrity of competition … and how it all illuminates NCAA rules that prevent immensely talented players, often in need, who make the game so popular from benefiting financially in any purely above-board way.

The emperor wearing no clothes … sitting on top of the elephant in the room … hidden in plain view … often in cahoots with athletic shoe companies, as first documented nearly 20 years ago in the book “Sole Influence.”

If you were suspending your disbelief, the Adidas college basketball corruption trial last year meant you had to turn to sheer denial as the Teflon melted away — including through FBI wiretaps and allegations directed at the Kansas program. Testimony in one trial linked payments on behalf of Adidas to two Kansas basketball recruits.

That’s why it was ominous for KU when an NCAA official last summer said six schools connected with the scandal would receive notices of Level 1 violations — the consequences of which can include postseason bans, loss of scholarships, and suspensions for coaches.

That looming black cloud, the report of which was first reported by The Star Friday, arrived with a thunderclap in Lawrence Monday when Kansas received an NCAA notice that alleges lack of institutional control, three Level 1 violations in men’s basketball and a head coach responsibility violation against Jayhawks coach Bill Self … not to mention allegations of secondary violations in the football program under former coach David Beaty.

Days after The Star reported the letter was coming and hours after a Yahoo Sports report that KU had received the letter, Kansas posted a partially redacted version of the 20-page notice on its website, stating in an accompanying letter that “it is already clear from an initial review that the University will fiercely dispute in detail much of what has been presented.”

Indeed, part of the process entails Kansas’ response to the allegations, which KU will get 90 days (at minimum) to produce. And the school ultimately will have the opportunity to appeal if it is assessed penalties.

Given Kansas’ lofty stature in the college basketball landscape, the potential ramifications of this are seismic.

For the NCAA and the college game itself and KU, which in April signed a 14-year, $196 million apparel and sponsorship extension with Adidas. Adidas: the very company whose former executive (Jim Gatto) Kansas sued in February claiming the school had suffered financial harm as a “victim of Mr. Gatto’s and his co-conspirators crimes” involving payments to basketball recruits.

Even with the arrival of the letter, though, there are far more questions than answers about the bubbling fallout ahead for the college game.

Those include to what degree players being paid would actually change the equation of extra inducements being offered, how the NCAA can otherwise effectively corral all this without continuing to profit off the unpaid talent that make this a multi-billion dollar enterprise for the institution, schools and coaches — and the increasingly quaint matter of just how appropriate it is for universities to be so invested in the business of de facto pro sports, anyway?

But the most pertinent questions for KU fans are whether the Jayhawks will soon be forced to miss their first postseason since 1989, when they were banned from the NCAA Tournament a year after winning the national title for violations under Larry Brown before he left to coach the San Antonio Spurs of the NBA.

And what this all might mean for the future of Self, who at 56 years old remains in the prime of a Hall of Fame career that at Kansas has included a 473-106 record, at least part of 14 straight Big 12 regular-season titles, plus three Final Fours and a national championship in 2008.

Head coaches who commit a Level 1 violation can be suspended for a season or more, according to the NCAA manual. And as the head coach, the NCAA says Self is accountable for his program:

“An institution’s head coach is presumed to be responsible for the actions of all institutional staff members who report, directly or indirectly, to the head coach,” NCAA Bylaw 11.1.1.1 states. “An institution’s head coach shall promote an atmosphere of compliance within his or her program and shall monitor the activities of all institutional staff members involved with the program who report, directly or indirectly, to the coach.”

The alleged violations are connected in part to the recruitment of former Jayhawk Billy Preston and Silvio De Sousa, who as a result of the trial was given a two-year NCAA suspension. De Sousa is eligible to play this year after Kansas appealed the second year of the punishment and the NCAA reinstated him.

Former Adidas employee T.J. Gassnola testified in federal court last October that he made payments of $90,000 on behalf of Adidas to the mother of Preston and $2,500 to the guardian of De Sousa. Gassnola also said he agreed to pay $20,000 to Fenny Falmagne, the guardian of De Sousa, to help Falmagne exit an agreement to send De Sousa to Maryland, an Under Armour school.

Gassnola testified that Self was not aware of the payments.

But by way of one example, the NCAA notice states that “Self and (assistant coach Kurtis) Townsend encouraged and had knowledge that … Gassnola, a then Adidas outside consultant, representative of the institution’s athletics interest and agent; had (made) impermissible recruiting calls” in which Gassnola encouraged a prospect to enroll at Kansas.

Kansas said in its statement Monday that it “emphatically rejects the assertion that Adidas and Adidas employees and associates were boosters and agents of the University (as defined by NCAA legislation) during the period of the alleged violations and therefore acting on the University’s behalf when they engaged in alleged violations of NCAA bylaws.”

The school also said “voluminous evidence demonstrates uncontestably that (Self) did, in fact, promote an atmosphere of compliance and fully monitor his staff. The University firmly and fully supports Coach Self and his staff.”

While he has long been speculated to be interested in the NBA, Self spoke with The Star’s Sam Mellinger about such murmurs in March.

“My motivation is as strong as ever to be the Kansas coach, to further this program, and to see the situation with the NCAA through,” he said. “Totally through. … I look forward to being here for a long time.”

It might be seen as a point of reassurance to Kansas fans that in a statement Monday, Self indicated he was just as ready to see it through as he was before.

“Compelled to reassure member institutions and the general public that it can police its member institutions, the NCAA enforcement staff has responded in an unnecessarily aggressive manner in submitting today’s unsubstantiated Notice of Allegations,” he said. “And I, as well as the University, will vigorously dispute what has been alleged. In its haste and attempt to regain control, the enforcement staff has created a false narrative regarding me and our basketball program.

“The narrative is based on innuendo, half-truths, misimpressions and mischaracterizations. In reality, we all know there is only one version of the truth. The truth is based on verifiable facts, and I am confident the facts we will demonstrate in our case will expose the inaccuracies of the enforcement staff’s narrative. …

“With our staff’s full cooperation, these allegations will be addressed within NCAA procedures and with urgency and resolve. I will strenuously defend myself and the program, but I will respect the process and will not speak to the details of the case.”

The details of the case, of course, are fundamental to it.

Just like it’s a fundamental truth in contested circumstances such as this that preliminary conclusions will be perceived through the eye of the beholder — KU fan vs. non-KU fan.

But there’s no denying this: Basketball has a big problem that can’t be unseen any more. And the tremors have hit home in Lawrence with much to be explained by any objective standard.



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Vahe Gregorian has been a sports columnist for The Kansas City Star since 2013 after 25 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He has covered a wide spectrum of sports, including 10 Olympics. Vahe was an English major at the University of Pennsylvania and earned his master’s degree at Mizzou.
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