Technically, Oregon’s basketball program isn’t on trial right now in Lower Manhattan.
The case unfolding in the Southern District of New York involves three defendants: Adidas executives Jim Gatto and Merl Code and business manager Christian Dawkins, all of whom stand accused of conspiring to commit wire fraud. In reality, this is an indictment on the entire sport, and the three men on trial aren’t the only ones with something to lose.
That became clear Tuesday with a doozy of an opening statement from Gatto’s attorney, Casey Donnelly. She didn’t deny that Gatto, a Wilsonville resident who oversaw global sports marketing at Adidas, broke NCAA rules by offering money to the families of basketball recruits. In the case of five-star forward Brian Bowen, she said Gatto was merely keeping pace in a bidding war with Nike’s flagship school.
“Oregon, a Nike school, offered (Bowen) an astronomical amount of money if he’d go to Oregon,” Donnelly said, according to reporters covering the trial.
Throwing out an allegation like that opens up a whole slew of questions. Based on the university’s response, no one at Oregon is scrambling to find the answers.
The university says it takes the claim seriously and will monitor the trial for more information. That’s good, I guess. I was afraid everyone would be watching “Judge Judy” instead.
You might think hearing your school mentioned in the same sentence with “astronomical amount of money” would spur someone into action, but apparently not. With the basketball season a month away and Pac-12 media day approaching, Oregon seems willing to let this play out and see what else emerges from the criminal proceedings.
“The university is aware of the claim made by a defense attorney in New York’s U.S. District Court as part of opening statements in a criminal trial related to college basketball recruiting,” a school said through a spokesman. “To date, the University of Oregon has not been contacted by the federal government or any other party involved in these proceedings.”
Notice Oregon didn’t deliver a strongly worded defense of its coach or its basketball program. There was no vote of confidence for, or from, Dana Altman. Nor was there the promise of a thorough and fair investigation.
That tells me Oregon isn’t confident about what’s going to come out over the next few weeks of testimony. Depending on what emerges, this could mean something very bad for Altman and the Ducks, or it could mean nothing at all.
Remember, Louisville fired Rick Pitino when the allegations surrounding Bowen first came to light. Arizona’s Sean Miller has been accused of worse but still has his job. Until we know more about what’s being alleged, it’s hard to speculate about what this could mean for Altman’s future.
For now, everyone is waiting for the other sneaker to drop. It’s one thing to throw out an accusation in an opening statement; it’s another thing to substantiate that allegation through evidence and sworn testimony. The burden now rests with Gatto’s attorneys to answer questions they raised by dragging Oregon into this mess.
For instance: Who offered the money? Someone from Nike? An agent? An assistant coach? Did that person send incriminating text messages or emails? Did they get caught on an FBI wiretap? Is Bowen’s father willing to testify about Oregon’s involvement?
Those are secondary questions in the scope of the FBI’s investigation into college basketball corruption. But for Oregon, they’re the only questions that matter.
For now, Oregon seems content to leave these questions in the hands of attorneys in a courtroom 2,000 miles away. Depending on the answers, the school will have a choice to make: stand behind its coach and its basketball program, or accept the possibility that these allegations have merit.
No one at Oregon has been charged with a crime, or even summoned as a potential witness in this case. From a legal standpoint, the Ducks aren’t the ones standing trial.
Until further notice, though, they're a player in this courtroom drama.
Follow Austin on Twitter @austinmeekRG. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.