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A corrupt culture
ESPN The Magazine

On April 13, 2000, JaRon and Kareem Rush's AAU basketball coach, Myron Piggie, was indicted for attempting to defraud several universities. One particularly disturbing incident cited in the indictment was a July 1997 Las Vegas meeting between Piggie, Nike's George Raveling and agent Jerome Stanley. At the meeting, the three discussed the future pro prospects of then-amateur Korleone Young, who is Piggie's cousin.

Within a month of the meeting, Stanley was making payments to Piggie (as much as $20,000 a pop) for what the indictment describes as "promotional activity on Stanley's behalf in the basketball community." Over the next year, Stanley's payments to Piggie totalled nearly $50,000. And the following April, shortly after Young declared for the NBA Draft, Stanley became Young's agent and promptly negotiated a $500,000 contract with Nike.

The Vegas rendezvous revealed the sycophantic side of AAU culture, one in which coaches, agents and representatives of shoe companies all conspire to make money off future pro players with little regard to their amateur status. Shoe companies are involved with AAU programs under the guise of trying to unearth the next MJ or Kobe. But it's a well-known fact that superstars hawking shoes very rarely make for large profits. Just look at Reebok's unsuccessful foray with Shaq.

AAU coaches, street agents and sneaker reps curry favor with AAU players on the assumption that down the road they will profit should these players become pros. Take, for instance, Jonathan Bender's former AAU coach Thad Fourcher, who parlayed his relationship with Bender into a job as an agent.

This influence over players is at the heart of U.S. Attorney Steven Hill's case against Piggie, namely that the AAU coach had ulterior motives in helping his stars. Of course, Piggie's trial never materialized. Faced with a longer jail sentence as a previously convicted felon in possession of a gun (he had already served time for dealing crack), Piggie pled guilty to the fraud and tax charges. And he got nailed, with a whopping 37 months of hard time.

The indictment did, however, raise several questions. First, why was Piggie the only person charged with a crime? It seems the U.S. Attorney could have also sought charges against several people who gave money to Piggie and the Rushes (either directly or indirectly). These include Stanley, Nike and former CMH 76ers (Piggie's team) financial supporter Tom Grant.

Second, why weren't the kids charged with fraud themselves? Theoretically, UCLA and Missouri had a case against the Rush brothers for submitting fraudulent letters of intent.

Third, was the entire matter worthy of federal prosecution? "Federal prosecutors have a significant amount of discretion," says Matt Mitten, a professor of law at Marquette and the director of the National Sports Law Institute. "But is this the best use of scarce resources and is the federal interest in this so strong as to justify federal criminal prosecution?"

In other words, if the federal government is so interested in upholding the by-laws of the NCAA, why doesn't Congress enact a statute that specifically bars money transactions between agents and players?

Perhaps the most important question is: what exactly did Piggie do wrong? Piggie was Young's cousin as well as a longtime family friend of the Rush brothers. What's wrong with helping your kin or friends?

It comes down to this: The NCAA is a monopoly that exploits players' amateur status in order to make money. The current AAU culture does the same thing. On occasion, players who bypass college completely do get requisite compensation for their athletic skills.

It is clear that Myron Piggie is not a model citizen, but while he was punished for allegedly pimping his players, it's important to note that college athletes are also pimped by an outdated monopoly.

John Gustafson writes college hoops for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at john.gustafson@espnmag.com.



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