At this point, the default response for most people to anything Michael Avenatti says about college basketball recruiting is going to be a hard roll of the eyes. A shoe company allegedly funneling money to people around amateur basketball players that would influence their college decisions? Oh, the horror.
When you take an already-tired narrative that shocks absolutely nobody and combine it with a fabulist attorney like Avenatti, who has now been indicted for trying to extort millions of dollars from Nike, it’s not completely obvious whether the claims he made via Twitter on Tuesday will become relevant or dismissed out of hand as a big, fat nothingburger.
For now, anyway, it seems the messenger’s problems are putting the message on shaky ground.
But it is worth noting that, while Avenatti has seemingly lost the first round of a public battle with Nike, we can’t totally dismiss the possibility that he could eventually factor in to an NCAA investigation.
In a series of tweets after his arrest, Avenatti hinted at payments from Nike intended to influence former Arizona forward Deandre Ayton and current Oregon freshman Bol Bol. While Ayton’s name coming up will surprise no one — his name was already associated with the FBI’s investigation into college basketball corruption — the Bol accusation is new and timely given that Oregon will play Thursday against Virginia in the Sweet Sixteen.
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“Bol Bol and his handlers also received large sums from Nike,” Avenatti tweeted. “The receipts are clear as day.”
Of course, we don’t know what those “receipts” are, or if they even exist.
Over the past year, Avenatti, has vaulted himself into the public eye as the lawyer for porn star Stormy Daniels, who claimed she was paid hush money to conceal a years-ago sexual encounter with President Trump. As much as that adventure has drawn the ire of conservatives, some of his subsequent forays into the political arena have not exactly lived up to the hype. He’s given both sides reasons to be skeptical.
But while the immediate focus of the indictment against Avenatti went to his alleged attempts to blackmail Nike, it did contain a rather interesting reference to his client, who was described as an AAU coach in California whose program had recently lost its Nike affiliation and sponsorship.
Within minutes, coaches and others within the basketball industry pointed to Gary Franklin, Sr., who runs the California Supreme program. ESPN, citing sources, has reported that Franklin is the coach in question.
USA TODAY made multiple attempts to contact Franklin on Monday, including going to his house in Southern California, but no one would answer the door. Both Ayton and Bol Bol, the players referenced by Avenatti, played for Cal Supreme as well as current NBA players Solomon Hill, Aaron Holiday and De’Anthony Melton.
It doesn’t take much imagination to piece together a theory of what happened. Disgruntled about losing his Nike contract while understanding how much the college basketball world is on edge about fallout from the FBI investigation, let’s say Franklin hooks up with Avenatti and sees an opportunity to get his own hush money.
Whether Avenatti’s tactics went outside legal boundaries, or whether anyone at Nike could be implicated in wrongdoing, will be for the government and the court system to decide. But from an NCAA perspective, there’s almost certainly going to be an interest now in what kind of evidence Avenatti had from Franklin.
Maybe it’s nothing. But AAU coaches, especially ones like Franklin who are routinely involved with top prospects, are often like information traffic cops, intersecting directly with the shoe company world, college coaches and middlemen of all forms. If there were financial deals in place to steer players to certain colleges, it’s not a stretch to think Franklin might have had some evidence of it, perhaps even some that would point to college coaches knowing about it.
In a sport that has already been shaken by what is known and unknown about the FBI’s evidence, this is just another layer of potential danger in a sport where there’s wide acknowledgment that these kinds of deals have been happening for a long time.
Avenatti sent a tweet Tuesday night saying that he’d “fully cooperate with the NCAA to my maximum ability,” indicating he would disclose texts, bank records and whatever else he might have. The NCAA has been given the go-ahead to begin its own investigative work on top of what the FBI has done. But it’s worth remembering that a rule change last year now allows NCAA enforcement to import evidence from other investigations. Whatever Avenatti has, the NCAA will probably get it one way or another.
Does that mean Oregon is about to be pulled into the broader college basketball scandal? Not necessarily. This isn’t a Will Wade situation where the school had to suspend him because of comments on an FBI wiretap. We’re still a few steps removed from knowing whether Avenatti has something worth the NCAA’s time, and Bol won’t play another game for Oregon after a foot injury ended his season in early January.
For Arizona, this accusation merely adds another log onto the fire. Former Adidas consultant T.J. Gasnola already testified last fall that he made payments to Ayton’s family with the hope of getting him to Kansas, and coach Sean Miller could be called to testify about college basketball recruiting next month in the trial of Christian Dawkins, a middleman who allegedly helped facilitate some of these deals. One of those questions, presumably, would be how he ended up at a Nike school when Adidas actually paid his family members and couldn’t even get him to one of theirs.
Through a prominent AAU coach, Avenatti of all people is still on Twitter claiming he has that answer. He may be right, or he may be full of it. But just because he’s an imperfect vessel to parachute into a story already full of shady characters doesn’t mean he’s incapable of inflicting even more damage onto the college basketball landscape.