Plausible Deniability Federal prosecutors make their case public. They tell the college sports world, “We have your playbook.” Details come out on secret payments. Who made them and who knew? Who received the money and to whose benefit? Who was the victim of pay-to-play and what, exactly, was the crime? After a stint playing overseas, Billy returns for the NBA draft. His name and the Kansas program have been swept into the case. Sentences come down for defendants. Billy and Nichole experience the fallout. Paula weighs the impact of all this on players, families and the system as a whole.
30 for 30 Podcasts: Bag Game Ep. 4
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:00:01) Previously, on The Bag Game. (MUSIC)
BRAD AUGUSTINE: (00:00:02) Guys, like, we’re here. We’re pros. If you don’t deliver, you’re done.
TED DISKANT: (00:00:06) What we were listening to was a scheme to make a very large payment to the family of a student athlete.
MYRON MEDCALF: (00:00:11) Everybody’s in it, man. If this thing is dirty, we all got mud on it, man, all of us.
REPORTER: (00:00:21) Station, this is ABC News, back on– on live 2. This is the ABC signal from the press conference in the studio.
MALE VOICE: (00:00:28) Test. Test. Test.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:00:31) It was noon on September 26th, 2017.
MALE VOICE: (00:00:35) Lapel check. Lapel check.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:00:37) Reporters from all the major outlets gathered inside the US Attorney’s Office in lower Manhattan.
MALE VOICE: (00:00:44) Lapel check. Check. Check.
REPORTER: (00:00:44) We still have a few minutes. I’ll get the two minute, flip the chart, and then we’ll go.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:00:48) Acting US Attorney Joon Kim walked in with an entourage of suits and stepped up to the podium.
JOON KIM: (00:00:55) Good Afternoon. Today, we announce charges of fraud and corruption in the world of college basketball.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:01:04) The Fed’s investigation into college basketball had been a secret. This is the moment it came into the light.
JOON KIM: (00:01:13) The picture painted by the charges brought today is not a pretty one.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:01:19) That afternoon, the feds announced the arrest of ten people; including Christian Dawkins, the aspiring agent; Brad Augustine, the AAU program director; Merl Code, the ADIDAS consultant; and James Gatto, the ADIDAS executive. You’ve heard them all in this series. Also charged; one bespoke suit maker, one investment manager, and four assistant coaches from division-one schools.
JOON KIM: (00:01:49) Coaches at some of the nation’s top programs soliciting and accepting cash bribes, managers and financial advisors circling blue chip prospects like coyotes, and employees of one of the world’s largest sportswear companies secretly funneling cash to the families of high school recruits.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:02:12) After the US attorney spoke, a man in a dark suit with a shaved head got up to the podium.
WILLIAM SWEENEY: (00:02:19) All of those charges today contributed to a pay-to-play culture that has no business in college basketball.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:02:24) This was William Sweeney, who led the FBI’s New York office.
WILLIAM SWEENEY: (00:02:29) Today’s arrest should serve as a warning to others choosing to conduct business this way in the world of college athletics. We have your playbook. (MUSIC)
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:02:38) “We have your playbook.” The criminal charges became top news.
REPORTER: (00:02:44) All right, breaking news. A federal probe has turned up widespread fraud and corruption in college basketball.
JAY BILAS: (00:02:51) I remember exactly where I was. I was at ESPN in Charlotte.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:02:56) Jay Bilas is an ESPN analyst and lawyer.
JAY BILAS: (00:02:59) There were discussions, primarily, “What’s gonna be the next shoe to drop? How far is this going to go? Is this gonna really rock college sports and college basketball, in particular?” And I don’t know that I necessarily understood it completely at the time.
TED DISKANT: (00:03:17) Jay, there are all sorts of different level sort of trouble. There are NCAA penalties. Then, there are federal crimes. Your impressions of wh– of how big of a scandal this might be?
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:03:30) I am investigative reporter Paula Lavigne from ESPN and 30 for 30 Podcasts. This is The Bag Game: Episode four, “Plausible Deniability”. We’ve talked about how the bag game looked to players, their families, and coaches, and to investigators uncovering all this money changing hands.
(00:03:59) Now, we’re going to talk about how the justice system dealt with the case and how it reverberated outside the courtroom for Billy Preston and for college sports as a whole. (MUSIC) For nine months after that press conference, the feds kept adding to their case; new allegations against more schools and coaches.
(00:04:22) Meanwhile, some defendants negotiated plea deals. Others headed to trial. The first of those trials started in October 2018, a year after the FBI made its first arrest. The feds decided to split the prosecution into two parts. They called one part, “The coach bribery scheme.”
TED DISKANT: (00:04:45) Coaches at predominantly public universities were soliciting and receiving bribes–
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:04:50) Ted Diskant led the prosecution.
TED DISKANT: (00:04:53) –in return for using their influence over student athletes who played for them, to introduce them to financial advisors, and managers, and the like.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:05:02) These were the cases against assistant coaches at division-one schools who got caught taking bribes from people like Christian Dawkins. It’s what they caught Dawkins and Code doing when they paraded coaches through the Cosmo Penthouse in Vegas, where Brad Augustine made promises about his star player and accepted a wad of cash for his influence.
(00:05:23) That’s where the defendants met with Marty Blazer, the financial advisor turned informant, and his investors, who were really undercover agents. So that was the first part of the prosecution. The other part was called, “The company one scheme.”
(00:05:42) And here, “Company one,” is lawyer speak for, “ADIDAS.” In that case, the government alleged that ADIDAS executive James Gatto, Code, and Dawkins had paid athletes or the families of athletes, like Billy Preston, to attend ADIDAS-sponsored universities.
(00:06:03) In early October, Gatto, Code, and Dawkins arrived at the imposing federal courthouse in lower Manhattan. The trial was expected to last for three weeks. Prosecutors prepared snippets of recorded conversations and wire-tapped phone calls. (TAPE SOUND EFFECT)
MALE VOICE: (00:06:21) Merl sent me back the $25,000 from ADIDAS.
MALE VOICE: (00:06:25) So it’s on the books. It’s not on the books as what it’s actually for.
MALE VOICE: (00:06:28) You– you don’t have to give a fuck. You– your world, there’s no jurisdiction. People can lose their jobs is all I’m saying.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:06:35) One of the witnesses prosecutors would call to testify was TJ Gassnola, the ADIDAS consultant who paid Billy’s mom, Nicole. Defense attorneys were prepared to admit their clients broke NCAA rules, but they planned to argue those actions weren’t criminal. To Jay Bilas, the whole spectacle was surreal, even questionable.
JAY BILAS: (00:07:01) I can tell you, Paula, when I first read the charging documents, I couldn’t believe that a case was being brought under that theory.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:07:10) He saw it as the feds using the courts to enforce rules for a private organization, the NCAA, not protecting the public.
JAY BILAS: (00:07:20) I thought it was absurd, and still do. The idea that the payment of money to players in violation of NCAA rules was a federal crime, to me, was ludicrous. (MUSIC)
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:07:35) The NCAA itself and its members, the universities, had created the rules against paying players. And that’s what arguably drove the whole scheme of paying players under the table. But the prosecution hinged on this, that the payments from ADIDAS made players ineligible for college teams, and therefore ineligible for the free tuition that came with joining the team.
TED DISKANT: (00:08:04) And the theory was the p– predominantly public universities– had been defrauded because all of the universities were required by the NCAA to ask, as a condition of issuing the scholarship, whether or not the student athletes were eligible under NCAA rules, whether or not they had engaged in violations of NCAA rules.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:08:22) Diskant and his teams of prosecutors argued that Gatto, Code, and Dawkins had made it impossible for the players to truthfully say to the universities that they were eligible for scholarships.
TED DISKANT: (00:08:36) The truthful answer to that question was, “No. These student athletes were not eligible.” And they weren’t eligible because of what the defendants had schemed to do.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:08:44) The players involved were recruits offered scholarships at Louisville, Miami, North Carolina State, and Billy Preston’s school, Kansas.
TED DISKANT: (00:08:54) And so showing that the scholarships were issued under false pretenses that the universities, as institutions, would not have issued the scholarships had they known the truth, was essential.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:09:08) Did the universities know or not? To prove they didn’t, the prosecution called compliance officers from the universities to testify, including Kansas Senior Director of Compliance Jeff Smith. He took the stand in October 2018 and was questioned by Assistant US Attorney Aline Flodr. (This is read by actors here because recorders weren’t allowed in court.)
ALINE FLODR (ACTOR): (00:09:35) As a result of the school deciding to join the NCAA, are there certain rules that the university is required to follow?
JEFF SMITH (ACTOR): (00:09:42) Yes, there are.
ALINE FLODR (ACTOR): (00:09:43) Do those rules include eligibility, with respect to amateurism?
JEFF SMITH (ACTOR): (00:09:47) Yes.
ALINE FLODR (ACTOR): (00:09:48) What, generally speaking, does it mean to be an amateur?
JEFF SMITH (ACTOR): (00:09:53) To be amateur, it means that a student athlete or prospective student athlete hasn’t professionalized, that they haven’t been paid for their athletics reputation.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:10:02) So the prosecutor asks, “What happens if those rules aren’t followed?”
ALINE FLODR (ACTOR): (00:10:06) Are there penalties that the University of Kansas could face if it was found to have allowed a player to compete who’s ineligible?
JEFF SMITH (ACTOR): (00:10:13) Yes.
ALINE FLODR (ACTOR): (00:10:14) What are some of the penalties the university could face?
JEFF SMITH (ACTOR): (00:10:17) There will be a vacation of records for the games that the athlete participated in, along with loss of revenue from those games. The NCAA could impose more penalties, such as recruiting penalties on the coaches, as well as fines to the university.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:10:32) (MUSIC) If the players had violated the NCAA’s rules, the universities could face fines. That was enough, in the prosecution’s theory, to make the universities victim of fraud. The defense argued that the universities couldn’t possibly be victims. After all, the defendants were delivering top players for the universities’ teams.
(00:10:55) The fans wanted those players. The coaches wanted those players. The athletic departments wanted those players. All Gatto and his co-defendants were doing was satisfying a demand from the universities themselves. Here’s Defense Attorney Mark Moore from the transcript, talking about ADIDAS rep Merl Code.
MARK MOORE: (00:11:15) We submit that the evidence will show that Merl and the others in the industry knew that the players were paid at the requested schools and that the schools were willing to assume the risk that the NCAA might catch wise. But nobody in the industry was dumb enough to do this out in the open and wave a red flag in the face of the NCAA.
(00:11:36) And so while the government made a whole lot about Merle’s comments– and there’s a recorded comment, where he talks about doing business in cash, I tell you that up front– while the government is going to make a whole lot about that, think about whether he was doing this to defraud the university, or he was doing this to help the university and its basketball program, and that these transactions were designed to help the players and the schools avoid the scrutiny of the NCAA and not in any way to defraud the school.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:12:09) And what about the head coaches, the guys running these programs? (MUSIC) The defense called on two to testify who were not implicated in the case, Arizona’s Sean Miller and LSU’s Will Wade. They were expected to talk about how much head coaches knew about the bag game. But the judge in the case refused to allow them on the stand. I asked formed prosecutor Andrew Goldstein why the government’s case didn’t implicate any head coaches.
ANDREW GOLDSTEIN: (00:12:41) Part of the way that you prosecute cases is to find people who are, as you say, the middle men. And if they accept responsibility for their actions and they become cooperated, as they often cooperate up the chain– and you find criminal conduct by people at the top.
(00:12:59) Here, the investigation uncovered the wrongdoing that it did. And it– I– I don’t think that you can just assume that the people above any of the ones who were charged were involved. If they were, if there was evidence that they were being directed to do this activity, you could expect that our office would have charged them.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:13:24) Based on the evidence prosecutors did have, the head coaches fill into a gray area of knowing and not knowing. Here’s a meeting where Christian Dawkins and Merl Code explain the situation to undercover agents. They’re talking about money they gave to the family of another basketball player, Brian Bowen, to play for coach Rick Pitino at Louisville.
CHRISTIAN DAWKINS (00:13:48) Now, right there, because of our relationships with these dudes, they’ll have open dialogue with– with– (UNINTEL)– if you ask Rick Pitino what happened to give Brian Bowen out– out–
MERL CODE: (00:13:58) He– he doesn’t know.
CHRISTIAN DAWKINS: (00:14:00) Yeah. He– he probably does.
MERL CODE: (00:14:01) He does know something.
CHRISTIAN DAWKINS: (00:14:03) But he doesn’t know every– what really happened. So it’s like sometimes–
MERL CODE: (00:14:07) Plausible deniability.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:14:08) “Plausible deniability.” (MUSIC) That was a phrase that came up over and over about whether coaches or staff higher up at the universities knew what was happening. In his closing argument in the ADIDAS case, Gatto’s attorney, Michael Schachter, explained how this worked in practice by referring to TJ Gassnola’s testimony.
MICHAEL SCHACHTER: (00:14:31) Why did Mr. Gassnola say that he gave money to Billy Preston’s mother? He said he understood that there were a lot of people providing her money and he wanted to decrease the chances that anything could affect Billy Preston’s eligibility to play basketball. Why? Because that would be bad for Billy Preston and it would be bad for the University of Kansas. So what was motivating him? He wanted to protect Kansas. He was not acting with a specific intent to defraud Kansas. He was making this payment to protect Kansas from the NCAA.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:15:17) As each day of testimony revealed new allegations and the debates over the merits of the case became daily fodder for sports talk shows and social media, Billy Preston and his mom, Nicole Player, followed the news.
PAULA LAVIGNE (ARCHIVAL): (00:15:31) What is your take on them saying that the University of Kansas was a victim?
BILLY PRESTON: (00:15:35) They ain’t no victim. They knew what was going on, too. They– they put the whole thing together. Like, they set it up. Like, KU was the only reason we even met.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:15:46) Remember, Billy says the coaching staff put Gassnola in touch with his mom.
BILLY PRESTON: (00:15:52) Soon as we got to KU, I’m an ADIDAS kid. Now that I play for KU, he’s an ADIDAS rep. They’re an ADIDAS school. They– they put us together. Just off the strength of them being an ADIDAS school and them having that type of power to where they could be like– they could tell him, “Oh, yeah. We– we– we want you to get in contact with Billy. Like, we want you to tap in with Billy and get that whole process rolling.” Yeah. That’s the only thing I’m gonna say about that. KU wasn’t no victim.
PAULA LAVIGNE (ARCHIVAL): (00:16:20) You think the coaches at KU knew that Gassnola was– was giving your mom or giving other people money?
BILLY PRESTON: (00:16:26) Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. They– they wasn’t blind to that. The– they– they weren’t blind to that at all. (MUSIC)
NICOLE PLAYER: (00:16:34) Victim? If anybody was a victim, it was the family that ADIDAS preyed on.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:16:42) Here is Nicole Player, Billy’s mom.
NICOLE PLAYER: (00:16:45) We left the school and weathered the storm. And never one time did I come out and say we’re victims when the reality is if anybody is a victim here, we’re victims of a corrupt system. We’re a victim of college corruption, corruption that has gone on for decades before us and will continue to go on decades after us.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:17:10) Billy and Nicole watched the case closely because they had a lot at stake. By the time Billy came back from Bosnia, Kansas and TJ Gassnola had shown up in documents filed with the court. That tied Billy and Nicole to the scandal. So Billy’s name was again in the news for all the wrong reasons when he’d just returned home from Bosnia to get ready for the NBA draft. He spent the month leading up to the draft doing workouts with different teams around the country.
BILLY PRESTON: (00:17:44) I’m literally living– living in an airport. One day, I’m in Boston. The next two days, I’m in Milwaukee. Next two days, I’m in Charlotte. Next two days, I’m in Atlanta. Like, I’m just flying everywhere.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:17:57) The NBA draft was held on June 21st, 2018. Billy was watching, surrounded by his family.
ANNOUNCER: (00:18:04) Good evening. And welcome to the 2018 NBA draft at Barclay’s Center.
BILLY PRESTON: (00:18:10) I had my family there, watching the draft, and me, and my mom, my dad, my grandmother, couple other people.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:18:16) Billy’s high school coach Steve Smith was watching, too. And he was fully expecting to see Billy’s name come up.
STEVE SMITH: (00:18:23) I mean, he handled that ball (DISTORTION) like a point guard. He could pass. He could score. He could shoot threes. I mean, he could– oof. And he– I mean, you could play him anywhere.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:18:34) Where do you think he would have been in the draft?
STEVE SMITH: (00:18:35) He should have been the first-round draft pick. I mean, I had a lot of guys play here, and then go to college, and they end up being lottery picks. And he’s as talented as they are.
NBA COMMISSIONER ADAM SILVER: (00:18:45) With the first pick in the 2018 NBA (MUSIC) draft, the Phoenix Suns select Deandre Ayton– (APPLAUSE) with the second pick in the 2018– and with the 15th pick– with the 26th pick– with the 57th pick in the 2018 NBA draft, the Oklahoma City Thunder–
BILLY PRESTON: (00:19:02) Two rounds go by. And I– and my name didn’t get called, not once, out of the whole two rounds.
PAULA LAVIGNE (ARCHIVAL): (00:19:09) How much impact, do you think, your draft stock was affected by what happened with Kansas and the investigation?
BILLY PRESTON: (00:19:18) It was impacted a lot. If I was able to play that whole year at KU, it would have been a whole different outcome.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:19:23) Former agent Matt Babcock agrees the draft would have gone differently if Billy had played in college.
MATT BABCOCK: (00:19:30) I had him as a second-round pick. If he had not gotten involved in– in– in the– the nastiness, maybe he would have, you know, played in college, he would have developed better, maybe his outcome would have been different, but, like, you know, we’ll never know.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:19:41) Billy was crestfallen. Then, the phone rang.
BILLY PRESTON: (00:19:46) Well, you know, like, five minutes after the whole draft goes off, you know, the Cavaliers called me. And they wanted me to play on their summer league team.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:19:55) The NBA summer league is where teams try out different roster combinations and where free agents like Billy can still land a spot. He got on the Cleveland Cavaliers G-league team.
PLAY-BY-PLAY: (00:20:07) There’s Billy Preston’s stroke.
PLAY-BY-PLAY: (00:20:10) He’s lighting it up. (LAUGH)
PLAY-BY-PLAY: (00:20:12) Somebody needs to.
PLAY-BY-PLAY: (00:20:13) Somebody, yeah.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:20:14) But they cut him after just a few months. By the end of 2018, Billy wasn’t on any team. And it weighed on him.
BILLY PRESTON: (00:20:25) It did mess me up, though, you know, just seeing everybody that I played with, you know, that year, my year, my class. They’re on the stage somewhere to where, like, I know I’m supposed to be. Yeah. I– I was depressed about it for– for a while. Like, I– I– I– I just couldn’t accept where I was at in life, knowing where I was supposed to be. (MUSIC)
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:20:46) Billy was living on his own for the first time. His grandmother let him stay in her empty house in Los Angeles while she prepared to sell it.
BILLY PRESTON: (00:20:55) Once she sold it, I didn’t have nowhere to go, not back home. I was basically staying on the streets. It got some points to where, like, I couldn’t even buy a meal. I couldn’t even buy a meal for myself. Like, nobody noticed, you know? Like, nobody noticed. This is the stuff that’s, you know, really be going on in life that nobody would know, nobody would see, you know, behind the scenes that– it this is real life, though, like, somebody that was in my position. And I done hit, you know, the– the bottom of the bottom.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:21:27) When Kansas benched Billy, the federal investigation had been public for only a month and a half. Kansas hadn’t been named yet. But the coaching staff knew the NCAA would be extra vigilant. They didn’t want to take any chances after Billy’s car accident started raising questions. That knocked Billy off his path to the NBA. The federal case upended Billy’s life, even though he wasn’t a target of the prosecution. What about the people who were prosecuted in the case?
REPORTER: (00:22:01) Federal jury in New York has found three people guilty of fraud.
REPORTER: (00:22:05) Whole payments to families of high-profile recruits to Louisville, Kansas, and North Carolina State.
REPORTER: (00:22:09) Commit wire fraud. The defendants include two former ADIDAS employees.
REPORTER: (00:22:12) So ADIDAS has put out a statement. It says, “We fully cooperated with the authorities during the course of the investigation and respect the jury’s verdict.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:22:19) A jury convicted ADIDAS executive James Gatto, consultant Merl Code, and Christian Dawkins of wire fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud in late October 2018. That was for bribing players and their families to go to ADIDAS-sponsored schools.
(00:22:37) In a separate case for bribing coaches, Code and Dawkins were convicted in May 2019. In both cases, the judges handed down prison sentences. They ranged from three months to a year, far less than the maximum. The four assistant coaches and two other defendants pleaded Guilty to bribery or wire-fraud related charges.
(00:23:04) Two of them were sentenced to three-month prison terms. The rest got probation, community service, or fines. Federal prosecutors dismissed their charges against Brad Augustine, the youth coach. And he was never indicted. Although prosecutors referred often to Billy’s mom, Nicole, during the trial in 2018, and one called her, “A member of the conspiracy,” she was never charged or even brought in to testify.
(00:23:34) Marty Blazer pleaded Guilty to charges related to his investment fraud that typically carry a mandatory minimum of two years in prison. Instead, he received one year of probation. And what about TJ Gassnola? He pleaded Guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud and also received one year of probation. The ADIDAS decision was appealed to the US Supreme Court. The court declined to review the case in December 2021, more than four years after the FBI’s initial arrests. For her part, Nicole was not impressed with the results.
NICOLE PLAYER: (00:24:22) You did all of this two-year investigation, you spent millions of dollars on wire taps to get people two months, three months? Then, the biggest greaseball of all, he gets nothing? You shame parents. You change the lives of different athletes, not just my son, for what?
(00:24:45) What did you get out of it? What did you hope was gonna happen? ‘Cause I can tell you right now, there’s an eighth grader somewhere getting a bag. I could tell you right now, there’s a senior somewhere being taken care of. The only thing they did was get a burner phone and stop doing (LAUGH) stuff online. You didn’t do anything but basically give them a recipe of what not to do or how to do it better.
(00:25:07) I think it was a complete shit show. I think it was a waste of time. I don’t think there was anything illegal. I don’t think that’s anything the federal government should have ever been involved in. I just– (LAUGH) I saw a bunch of African American assistant coaches in handcuffs, for what? Now, these men can never get job– (MUSIC) for what? For something that’s been going on since the beginning of time?
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:25:33) ESPN has made several requests with Kansas and Coach Self to talk about the case and the players it affected. They’ve all been denied because even though the federal case is over, the NCAA has spent more than five years on its own investigation. And Kansas says it won’t comment until there’s a final ruling. But I did get one chance to talk to Coach Self.
ANNOUNCER: (00:25:58) We are now joined by Kansas Coach Bill Self. Coach, welcome, and your thoughts about the upcoming season?
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:26:03) Every year, the Big Twelve Conference kicks off their preseason with a two-day press conference called Big Twelve Media Days.
BILL SELF: (00:26:10) In most years–
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:26:11) In October 2019, I went to my first Big Twelve Media Days in Kansas City with ESPN’s Myron Medcalf. Coaches went up to a podium in front of a packed room full of reporters. Most reporters ask questions about the upcoming season, injuries, rankings, all the usual stuff. But they tended to avoid controversy. Why upset the coaches and staff who control their access to players and games?
BILL SELF: (00:26:38) Can we– is it time? All right– all right, guys, have at it.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:26:42) When Self finally sat down and a crowd of reporters converged on him, Myron and I jumped in with questions about the investigation and about all the texts and phone calls between him and TJ Gassnola that came out at trial.
PAULA LAVIGNE (ARCHIVAL): (00:26:57) How typical is that of a conversation that a head coach would have with a– shoe company rep?
BILL SELF: (00:27:05) I– I– I– I’ll– I’ll– I’ll refrain from going into detail, but I don’t th– I– I– I will say this. I don’t think it’s unusual to have conversations with– with– people involved in– grassroots basketball, at all. That– that– that’s– that’s something that would occur a lot at every place.
PAULA LAVIGNE (ARCHIVAL): (00:27:32) Where do you draw the line in those conversations?
BILL SELF: (00:27:37) The conversations that– the– the thing that you’re asking me is something that– that– that– we are– we are– strongly going to fight and defend. So– I’m not g– I– I don’t want to give an answer that– that gives the appearance that I’m admitting to something that has taken place because– I don’t believe the conversations were inappropriate.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:27:58) We asked Self if he worried about what would happen to him personally as the NCAA investigation continued.
BILL SELF: (00:28:05) Our– our chancellor, and our athletic director, and our basketball program were– were totally aligned. And– and– and the– the thing about it is I feel totally confident– I feel 100% confident that I’m gonna be the coach here for a long time.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:28:19) Soon after that, another reporter jumped in to steer the conversation back to basketball.
BILL SELF: (00:28:26) I know what’s transpired. And even better yet, I know what has not transpired. I’m not running from this at all.
INTERVIEWER: (00:28:33) (UNINTEL), if there a level of concern or–
BILL SELF: (00:28:35) Shea goes right back to basketball. That’s– that’s good. (LAUGH) That’s good.
INTERVIEWER: (00:28:38) I was just– you said three or four days– (LAUGH) (MUSIC)
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:28:42) Kansas suspended Self and Assistant Coach Kurtis Townsend for the first four games of the 2022-2023 season as preemptive punishment for whatever violations the NCAA investigation might turn up. But it isn’t like Self’s job is in danger. In 2021, Kansas signed him to a lifetime contract. It pays him a little less than $5.5 million a year plus $240,000 for travel by private jet. The contract also stipulates that he can’t be fired for cause over violations that happened before the contract was signed.
PLAY-BY-PLAY: (00:29:24) Kansas for the fourth time in school history, men’s basketball national champions. The final score: Kansas, 72; North Carolina, 69.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:29:36) In 2022, after Kansas won the NCAA championship, Self became the first college basketball coach to earn over $10 million in a single year. There were no hard feelings between Kansas and ADIDAS, either. In 2019, ADIDAS renewed its sponsorship deal with the Jayhawks for another 14 years.
(00:30:01) Under the deal, ADIDAS will pay the University of Kansas $196 million. So if the FBI investigation turned the lives of players like Billy upside down and didn’t put a dent in the big-money deals in college basketball, did the feds accomplish anything?
(00:30:23) Just a couple weeks after the FBI made its arrests, the NCAA created what is called the Commission on College Basketball to clean up the sport. It’s commonly referred to as the Rice Commission because it was led by former US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice:.
(00:30:42) The commission released its report in April 2018. The report was mostly notable for what it didn’t say. It didn’t recommend ditching the NCAA’s amateurism rule. But at a press conference, Rice expressed frustration with the way the NCAA made exceptions for some forms of payment and not others.
CONDOLEEZA RICE: (00:31:04) For the life of me, I don’t understand the difference between Olympic payments and participation in Dancing with the Stars, which are allowed and what can’t be allowed. Personally, I hope that there will be more room in the college model for this kind of benefit to students without endangering the model itself. (MUSIC)
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:31:23) Rice seemed to be inching toward a conclusion that lots of fans had reached long before: The whole concept of college players not making money while schools, and coaches, and TV networks made billions; people were just not buying it anymore.
FEMALE VOICE: (00:31:41) If you believe in capitalism, there’s– the NCAA makes no sense.
STEPHEN A. SMITH: (00:31:44) They see everybody around them padding their wallets, but they don’t get an opportunity to do so, as well. The unfairness of it all–
MALE VOICE: (00:31:51) Another way to get to these families who are struggling, who need money, for– who need help to pay the bills, to put food on the table.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:32:05) As for Billy, whatever his deeper thoughts or feelings, he stayed on good terms with Kansas and Bill Self. When the Jayhawks went to the final four in 2018, the year Billy would have been with the team, they sent Billy a ring, just like the rest of his teammates.
NICOLE PLAYER: (00:32:23) And it has diamonds, and rubies, and sapphires. I don’t know how much that– those rings cost.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:32:28) It’s bedazzled with blingy stones, but they’re not real diamonds. The NCAA caps the value of team rings at a few hundred dollars. When I first met Billy, it was in 2020. He was pulling out of his depression and bouncing around a lot. After his stint on the Cavaliers’ developmental team ended, he played on a couple more G-league teams. Then, he went to Australia, the Dominican Republic, and the Cape Town Tigers in the NBA’s new basketball Africa league.
PLAY-BY-PLAY: (00:33:04) There’s a long-range shot going in. That’s the first big score there, coming in from Billy Preston. That’s the match up–
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:33:11) In 2022, Billy traveled with the Cape Town team to New York City to play a few exhibition games. I caught up with him again and we walked around Sunset Park, Brooklyn. And Billy told me he was in a much better place, mentally.
BILLY PRESTON: (00:33:29) I look at myself now and, like, I’m like, “Damn. I can’t believe I was, like, going through– like, going through that type of stuff where– down on myself the way I was down on myself.” You– you know, some days, I wouldn’t eat. And I’m like– now, I’m looking at it like, “Bruh, you wasn’t eating?” (MUSIC)
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:33:45) That night, he played against a local team at a public park in Queens. Home team fans turned out to see the Lincoln Park elite play against the Tigers. (CHEERING) The announcer at the game that night gave Billy a nickname based on his jersey number, 23, Michael Jordan’s number.
PLAY-BY-PLAY: (00:34:04) Here we go, the Michael Jordan of Cape Town, number 23 with it. He spins, behind the back, jump-shot. What he got? Count it. Hoo-hoo. Some important game.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:34:13) At 24 yeas old, Billy expected to be playing sold-out arenas, not a public park on a hot summer night. But his dream is still alive.
PAULA LAVIGNE (ARCHIVAL): (00:34:25) What is the number one thing you want to do?
BILLY PRESTON: (00:34:27) To play in the NBA. That’s– that’s always my goal. From– from college, high school, that’s always been my goal. That’s still– my main goal is to play in the NBA.
NICOLE PLAYER: (00:34:38) Billy’s competing for his spot in the NBA with guys just now coming out of college. And they are coming from a totally different world than Billy did. That’s because in June 2021, a unanimous ruling by the US Supreme Court struck down the NCAA limits on athlete compensation.
FEMALE VOICE: (00:34:58) In a blistering concurring opinion, Justice Brett Kavanaugh added that the sports traditions near and dear to alumni and others, quote, “Cannot justify the NCAA’s decision to build a massive money-raising enterprise on the backs of student athletes who are not fairly compensated–”
FEMALE VOICE: (00:35:14) In the NCAA– he really did. Kavanaugh brought the hammer down on the NCAA. And I think that that’s the long-term impact that has the commissioner’s attention.
MALE VOICE: (00:35:19) It’s the end of the world as we know it. This is the end of the NCAA as we know it. The funeral hasn’t happened yet. The last rites have not been uttered. But it’s over for the NCAA. (MUSIC)
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:35:31) The Supreme Court Alston ruling didn’t end the amateurism rule completely. It just allowed student athletes to receive education-related benefits, like computers or scholarships for grad school. But not long after the court’s ruling, state laws started going effect that took direct aim at amateurism. States like California started allowing college athletes to make money from endorsements and other deals, based on their name, image, and likeness.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:36:21) And the players can now get paid by shoe companies, directly, above the table, for wearing their gear. In March 2022, ADIDAS created a program to pay athletes at every division-one school it sponsors. Fifty-thousand college athletes could be eligible for the program. And in October of that year, Nike signed three high school and two college basketball players to endorsement deals.
FEMALE VOICE: (00:36:51) Some of the biggest names in college sports now stand to earn millions. These young athletes, now able to hire agents and sign major–
MALE VOICE: (00:36:57) I think it’s been a very paternalistic attitude that the NCAA has had towards athletes, so it was a train that they could not stop; it had already left the station.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:37:08) I cannot stress how shocking and huge a change this is for college sports. We are all still reeling from it, that these deals that were so taboo, they landed people in jail and ruined careers, now they’re commonplace, totally legal. But it doesn’t change anything for Billy Preston.
PAULA LAVIGNE (ARCHIVAL): (00:37:30) I– I guess, if it were me, it would be the thing that would sort of stick with me is that all of this stuff that led to this is now perfectly okay. (LAUGH)
TIMICHA KIRBY: (00:37:43) Yep. It is.
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:37:44) That’s Billy’s god-mom, TK.
TIMICHA KIRBY: (00:37:47) All of these things, they’re– you know, it– kids can sign. They can sign deals. I think the only thing that Billy ever told me was like, “Man, I wish that was happening when I was playing,” you know? Kids had to suffer, coaches had to suffer. Just isn’t fair and it wasn’t right. And now, anything goes. How does that work? (LAUGH) But that’s the truth right now, today.
PAULA LAVIGNE (ARCHIVAL): (00:38:12) Do you wish you wouldn’t have taken the money?
BILLY PRESTON: (00:38:18) I mean, I wish– I wish I wouldn’t have gotten into a car wreck. I wish– they– you know, never found out about us getting the money. That’s what I wish– ’cause I don’t– I don’t never wish we didn’t get the money ’cause, like I said, family-wise, life-wise, we needed that money. Like, it– it– it wasn’t nothing, we was just leaching off us– it wasn’t like we was just trying to just take money when we had a whole bunch of money already, like, “I’m– I’m– I’m an all-star. I’m a McDonald’s All-American,” and this and that, but you don’t get paid for that.
(00:38:55) Like, you’re not getting paid for that. So you– we’re still regular people with regular– my mom’s got a regular income. She’s a regular person. So when that type of money come to the table, we need that. We’ve been struggling our whole lives. But I just wish, like, the whole scenario after that would have been different. That’s what I wish didn’t happen. I don’t– I don’t wish we didn’t take that money. (MUSIC)
PAULA LAVIGNE: (00:39:23) At 25, Billy still has NBA dreams. But it’s a long shot. He has circled the globe trying to find his way back to the life he expected. His mother Nicole still lives in Dallas. She took a job as an airline customer service rep just so she could afford to travel to his games.
(00:39:47) I have thought a lot about why it’s important to tell Billy’s story now, now that the federal cases are over and the amateurism model is dead. It’s because these athletes deserve accountability. Countless young talents, like Billy, had their careers strangled by the system.
(00:40:10) And, yes, some types of pay are now allowed, but there is still exploitation. Colleges can’t pay athletes directly. They can’t use NIL deals to recruit. So, alumni groups or booster collectives are now acting as illicit go-betweens accused of offering endorsement deals that do pay players to come to their schools.
(00:40:38) The new name, image, and likeness deals offered to athletes are sometimes bad with huge commissions for hangers-on, restrictions, and long-term provisions that could even eat into their pro careers. The bag men are still out there, spotting teen stars and making their families offers that are too good to be true. (MUSIC)
(00:41:52) The Bag Game is based on reporting by me, Paula Lavigne, and ESPN reporter, Mark Schlabach. Senior producer is Matt Frassica. Associate producer and archival producer is Meghan Coyle. Additional archival production from Chi-Young Park. Music by Braxton Cook, with additional composition, scoring, and sound design by Hannis Brown.
(00:42:17) For 30 for 30 Podcasts, Eve Troeh is senior editorial producer. Cath Sankey is line producer. Associate producer is Gus Navarro. Production assistants are Diamante McKelvie, Anthony Salas, and Isabella Seman. Marsha Cook and Brian Lockhart are executive producers for 30 for 30 and ESPN Films.
(00:42:40) Production management by Tom Picard and Maria Delgado. Rights and clearances by Jennifer Thorpe. For ESPN Films development, senior director Adam Neuhouse, Trevor Gill, and Tara Nadolny. Chris Buckle is ESPN’s vice president of investigative journalism.
(00:43:00) Investigative editors Mike Drago, David Duffey, Elizabeth Baugh, and Laura Patel. Fact checking by John Masterbaradino. Additional production at Mixing Room Studios in Omaha, Nebraska. Voice acting by Sam Borden, Terika Foster, David Mahr, Michael Filbrik, Sarah Spain, and Eric Neil.
(00:43:24) Special thanks for Jorge Puana and Heather Mitchell, also Greg Amante, Raina Banks, David Lovers, Nicole Noren, Jeff Borzello, Myron Medcalf, Nick Petraskevic, Tony Moss, and Vick Seeper. David Maher, Alan Low, Peter Shear, and Kelly Ryadtprovided legal review. You can find all 30 for 30 Podcasts and more, including transcripts, at 30for30Podcasts.com. (MUSIC)
(BREAK IN TAPE) (00:44:25)
Reporter/Host: Paula Lavigne
Additional Reporting: Mark Schlabach
Senior Producer: Matt Frassica
Senior Editorial Producer: Eve Troeh
Line Producer: Cath Sankey
Associate Producer: Gus Navarro and Meghan Coyle
Archival Producer: Meghan Coyle with Chi-Young Park
Music: Braxton Cook with additional compositions by Hannis Brown
Scoring and Audio Mixing: Hannis Brown
Production Assistants: Diamante McKelvie, Anthony Salas and Isabella Seman
Executive Producers: Marsha Cooke and Brian Lockhart
Production Management: Tom Picard and Maria Delgado
Rights and Clearances: Jennifer Thorpe.
ESPN Films Development: Senior Director, Adam Neuhaus with Trevor Gill, and Tara Nadolny.
Vice President of Investigative Journalism: Chris Buckle
Investigative Editors: Mike Drago, David Duffey, Elizabeth Baugh and Laura Purtell
Fact checking: John Mastroberardino.
Additional production at Mixing Room Studios in Omaha, Nebraska.
Voice acting: Sam Borden, Terrika Foster, David Marr, Michael Philbrick, Sarah Spain, and Eric Neel
Special thanks to: Jorge Plana, Heather Mitchell, Greg Amante, Rayna Banks, David Lubbers, Nicole Noren, Jeff Borzello, Myron Medcalf, Nick Pietruszkiewicz, Tony Moss and Vic Seper
Legal Review: Dave Mayer, Alan Lau, Peter Scher and Callie Riotte