College basketball’s sneaker scandal is troubling and years in the making

Adidas executive Jim Gatto has been charged in an NCAA corruption scandal

Apparel brands have always been uncomfortably close to the world of college basketball recruiting. On Tuesday things came to a head when the FBI detailed an expansive corruption investigation involving college coaches, financial advisors and a representative of a major sportswear company.

This is a major deal for the NCAA and a major deal for Adidas. Being involved in an investigation of this magnitude is obviously never a good thing for anyone — especially when we’re talking about bribes being taken and arrests being made.

There will likely be major changes made from all parties as a result of that. There will have to be, because most of these practices are actually nothing new.

How are sneakers involved in this?

Shoe company sponsorships keep the basketball world afloat. Not only do major athletic apparel brands sponsor college basketball programs, but they also run the three major grassroots (or AAU) circuits. The ties between basketball and brands like Adidas, Nike, and Under Armour are deep.

U.S. Attorney Joon H. Kim detailed during a press conference on Tuesday the alleged fraud scheme involving Adidas representatives, college basketball programs and athletes.

According to investigators, James Gatto, the head of global sports marketing, was charged by the Federal Bureau of Investigation for allegedly bribing two college players $100,000 and $150,000 to attend Adidas-sponsored schools and, eventually, sign with the brand once they reach the NBA.

Merl Code, another Adidas employee involved with their AAU circuit, was also charged on Tuesday. He was alleged to have helped organize and manage the payments to the athletes and their families.

Adidas acknowledged Gatto’s arrest this morning in a statement.

“Today, we became aware that federal investigators arrested an Adidas employee. We’re unaware of any misconduct and will fully cooperate with authorities to understand more,” the statement said.

With most of these major brands sponsoring schools and a few of them previously sponsoring coaches, this was bound to happen. Talk to players who have been recruited by major universities across the country and most of them can give you a story about bagmen they’ve come across.

How basketball camps, AAU Basketball and apparel brands got us here

Nike, Adidas, and Under Armour all have major AAU circuits. The Adidas Uprising tournament is the one that has been called into question in this particular investigation.

These AAU showcases put coaches, recruiters, agents and players all in one setting at the same time — all parties that aren’t supposed to interact.

In the investigation, the coaches in question are allegedly captured on wire taps arranging payments with Adidas, a money runner, and an AAU coach to ensure the players in question continue on Adidas’ path.

It’s not a good thing for the NCAA’s ‘amateurism’ or youth basketball in general, but it is common practice. Anyone familiar with the the story of Sonny Vaccaro, a former sports marketing executive and camp guru for Nike, won’t be too surprised by this news.

Vaccaro began the ABCD basketball camps back in the early 80s where he invited the best-of-the-best college recruits from across the country to participate. Names like Tracy McGrady, Kobe Bryant and even LeBron James have made appearances at this camp.

Only the coaches who were signed by Nike could attend and have a chance to recruit the best high school basketball athletes. Nike used to sign coaches to deals where they’d pay them thousands of dollars and would ensure the teams they coached had the latest sneakers and gear.

In the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary “The Sole Man”, Vaccaro said “Summer basketball. That’s where the game starts.”

Brands were influencing athletes with their gear from a very early age and continuing through their later high school and early college years. As time went by, brands began to sponsor AAU teams, which is what brought us to where we are today. Where ABCD basketball has faded, AAU has taken over.

The constants have been colleges and brands working — both together and apart — to develop ties to players and middle men stepping in to facilitate those relationships for profit.

This is a mess — make no doubt about it. But it’s also tradition. And to change it, regulations have to change.