Spotlight not just on Arizona’s Sean Miller, but college basketball, too

The FBI investigation into several of the nation’s top college basketball programs, including the University of Arizona and coach Sean Miller, has sent shockwaves throughout the sport. (Phil Roeder/Flickr)

PHOENIX – A report that an FBI wiretap intercepted University of Arizona coach Sean Miller discussing payments to a star basketball player has raised questions about the past and future of college basketball, but many observers say the current firestorm is no surprise.

“I saw it; it happened in front of us,” said former agent Sam Renaut, now assistant director of the sports law and business program at Arizona State’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. “There were players that I lost because I wasn’t willing to play this way. But it’s not a surprise. This is happening everywhere. It’s the cost of doing business if that’s the world you want to be in.”

On Friday, ESPN reported the FBI had recorded a conversation involving Miller and the possible payment of $100,000 to Deandre Ayton, now a standout freshman with the Wildcats. Miller didn’t coach on Saturday in the Wildcats’ loss to the Oregon Ducks in Eugene.

Renaut, who mostly represented NFL players and coaches, believes “the average fan probably doesn’t realize the extent to which all this goes on.”

“There’s a lot of prominent people who are on TV now who were involved in this and have talked about it in the past, but it really is, it’s everywhere, it’s something that’s pretty commonplace,” Renaut said. “Not everyone is doing it, but there’s enough where it really doesn’t come as a surprise.”

Young basketball players are prey for unscrupulous figures, Renaut said. The unregulated club-basketball scene makes it easy to access the aspiring stars and their families.

Ayton’s parents have denied involvement in any illegal activity as their son looked at colleges. As a junior and senior, Ayton attended Phoenix Hillcrest Prep Academy, where he teamed with Duke standout Marvin Bagley III.

“You can identify a star player in basketball as early as eighth, ninth grade,” Renaut said. “So it’s much easier for agents to identify and invest early in the top talent.”

Miller has not commented since the report but did issue a statement saying he was confident he would be vindicated.

If the report is true, Miller could be indicted on federal charges. But that likely isn’t the end of things, said Monica Lindstrom, a metro Phoenix attorney and legal commentator.

“This could lead to other people at the UofA and perhaps other coaches and individuals in other schools and universities,” she said. “It could also tie into certain players. If the players or the players’ families were paid, it’s possible that they would be involved in the legal wranglings as well.”

If untrue, Miller could take action, Lindstrom said.

“It is possible if this conversation never occurred, if the conversation is not in a wiretap and Sean Miller had no conversation whatsoever with Christopher Dawkins that was similar to this, that Miller could turn around and go after the reporter and his sources for defamation,” Lindstrom said. “That’s a very difficult case when you go against the media like that, but if the media did not have a good-faith basis and evidence to go forth, then Sean Miller could have a good case.”

The FBI several years ago set up new policies to pursue public corruption, and because state universities are publicly funded, they’re under the scrutiny of the FBI. How deep will the agency pursue the corruption?

Renaut said he couldn’t say for sure, but added, “I think with the FBI involved and the scope of what it looks like they’re uncovered so far … it’s possible that the FBI is going stop at some point and realize that this is just too big or maybe it’s not worth pursuing or they don’t have the resources to do it.”

As for cleaning up college basketball in the future, there may be no easy answer. Some think this latest scandal makes a strong case for paying players.

“I think there’s a good argument to make this a free market,” Renaut said. “You’ve got a lot of people advocating for that where players should be able to profit off of their own abilities. But I think it would undermine the entire system as it stands now, and I don’t think there’s a good solution in place that we could shift to that without a lot of major issues in doing that.

“But if you did allow players to at least profit off of their name, image and likeness, and maybe not their athletic abilities, then maybe that would put a stop to this to some degree.”