- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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Remember the San Diego point-shaving scandal? Sure you do. Brandon Johnson, the school's all-time points and assists leader, was implicated and later charged and sentenced as the result of an FBI investigation into a point-shaving scheme during the Toreros' 2009-10 season. After his career was over, he later attempted to recruit another USD player into the game-fixing morass. Eight people connected to the conspiracy were convicted and sent to federal prison, the most recent being illegal bookmaker Richard Francis Garmo. Johnson was sentenced to six months in a federal facility.
Why revisit this? Because the FBI released a report on the case, and it comes complete with a whole mess of fascinating new details. To wit: The FBI operation, dubbed "Operation Hook Shot" was a three-year sting that began with a mission totally unrelated to college basketball. Instead, the FBI was trying to close in on an illegal gambling/marijuana dealing business in San Diego. Only later did they discover -- thanks in large part to Thaddeus Brown, an assistant coach at USD in 2006-07 who had placed illegal bets with the bookmaker and recruited Johnson in 2009-10 -- the point-shaving angle.
During that season, the FBI report states, it's likely at least four games were fixed with Johnson's help:
Perhaps the senior point guard would miss a free throw now and then or draw a technical foul. Or he would just pass up a shot—at one point Johnson was heard on electronic surveillance talking about how he wouldn’t shoot at the end of a particular game because it would have cost him $1,000.
The co-conspirators routinely got together to discuss the predictions of oddsmakers and to pick which games to fix. They would then make their bets—often on the other team (USD was usually favored to win)—which would enhance their winnings even more. And with Johnson manipulating the games, they usually won their bets, netting them more than $120,000.
Those facts and figures ground the whole mess in reality. The apocryphal assumption about a player participating in a point-fixing scheme is that there are huge sums of money involved -- $10,000, $20,000, a sum large enough to make any and all immediate monetary worries go away. A sum large enough to be tempting, in other words.
But $1,000 is a different story. While not a small amount of cash by any means, particularly for a college student, it isn't going to knock you over in your chair, or force you to start thinking long and hard about what you would do if you were in a college basketball player's position. It's just, you know, $1,000.
Perhaps the mundanity of the figure is what's truly scary. As NBC Sports' Rob Dauster writes:
He’s not throwing the game, he’s just making a bad pass or missing a shot intentionally here and there to ensure that his team doesn’t cover the spread. That money can stock your fridge and let you buy a round of shots at a campus bar while also helping to make sure your parents aren’t late on a car payment or rent — and it doesn’t cost your team a win. ... How many [college basketball games] do you think are fixed?
That's what's so insidious about this, and why the NCAA is so terrified of it: There are thousands of college basketball games every season in far flung locations and backwater hideaways. If a kid at a low-profile program can be gotten to for just $1,000 per game, and all he's doing is keeping an eye on the scoreboard when his team is polishing off a blowout win, how do you even remotely attempt to police that?
Besides, $1,000 says something deeply damaging about the viability of the amateur model in the first place, something everyone but the NCAA seems to recognize: When you drown a sport in money but outlaw its players from making any of it, you create the ideal conditions for this type of exploitation. It's why AAU tournaments can charge $300 for a program with names and roster numbers; it's why shoe companies get their hooks in early; it's why Michigan spent the last 10 years pretending Chris Webber didn't exist.
Back in 2010, ESPN The Magazine polled 170 anonymous college basketball players on a variety of topics, one of them being a hypothetical point-shaving situation. The prompt was as follows: "If you had a noncon game you knew you'd win by 40, how much would it take for you to shave points and win by 35?" About 75 percent of players said they'd never shave points, but one in four said they'd do it for an average fee of $491,000, and 4.8 percent admitted they'd lop off points for a quick $10,000.
None of them were willing to do it for $1,000 or even $4,000. Brandon Johnson was undercompensated.