Commentary

Basketball Star's Federal Lawsuit Accuses Adidas Of Racketeering

Brian “Tugs” Bowen II, a high school basketball star whose father received $100,000 from Adidas to convince him to play college hoops for the University of Louisville, is suing the sportswear company and several individuals, claiming they engaged in bribery, fraud and money laundering. The son was purportedly unaware of the payoffs.

The suit asks “for unspecified damages and says Bowen and other players targeted by Adidas’ ‘criminal racketing enterprise’ were denied the chance to grow their talents in college on the way to becoming professionals,” the AP’s Pete Iacobelli reports.

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“The younger Bowen enrolled at Louisville in the fall of 2017, but never played a game. He transferred to South Carolina for the spring semester and left in May when it became apparent the NCAA would keep him from playing for longer than Bowen hoped. Bowen took part in the NBA’s Draft Combine last spring and is playing professionally in Australia,” Iacobelli adds.

The individuals named in the lawsuit are Adidas associates James Gatto, Merl Code, Christian Dawkins, Munish Sood, Thomas Gassnola and Christopher Rivers. Gatto, Code and Dawkins were accused of fostering pay-for-play schemes to influence high-profile basketball recruits and convicted of wire fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud in a trial in New York last month, as ESPN’s Mark Schlabach reported. Sood and Gassnola had entered guilty pleads following an FBI probe earlier this year and were witnesses at the trial.

The men “were accused of paying money from Adidas to the families of recruits to ensure they signed with Adidas-sponsored schools, and then with the sneaker company and certain financial planners and agents once they turned pro,” Schlabach wrote. 

Adidas, a German company with U.S. headquarters in Portland, Ore., denies the allegations in the lawsuit filed yesterday under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) in U.S. District Court in South Carolina by the McLeod Law Group, and likely will file a motion to dismiss it, the Kansas City Star’s Jesse Newell and Adam Zagoria report

“We have reviewed these allegations and believe they have no merit. As we have stated previously, Adidas is committed to ethical and fair business practices, and we look forward to continuing to work with the NCAA and other stakeholders to improve the environment around college basketball,” the company tell them in a statement that’s not posted to its website this morning (although an image of a dribbling Bowen still is.)

“The sports-clothing maker wasn’t accused of wrongdoing in the federal criminal probe, but said in a statement after the guilty verdict in the federal case that the company has ‘strengthened our internal processes and controls and remain committed to ethical and fair business practices,’” the Wall Street Journal’s Sara Germano points out.

“Courts are very wary of RICO cases,’ former federal prosecutor Kent Wicker tells the Louisville Courier Journal’s Tim Sullivan. “They first started being brought (in civil disputes) in the ’80s and the idea was that every run-of-the-mill case or business dispute was being brought as a RICO case. So the Supreme Court reacted to that and made the rules pretty strict to get a RICO case to judgment.… Courts are gonna be on the lookout for a way to pull this back, but it sounds like at least at this stage that it makes a viable use of the statute, although a pretty aggressive one."

“If Bowen’s attorneys make it past that motion to dismiss, their suit states they will make an effort to prove there has been a pattern of racketeering activity across the NCAA landscape. To do that, they would be seeking discovery on the roughly 30 schools who are sponsored by Adidas,” Newell and Zagoria write.

“Adidas has thus far infiltrated college basketball with complete impunity,” the McLeod Law Group says in a statement. “It is now time for them to answer for what they have done and to suffer the consequences of their corporate misconduct. Brian is an exceptional young man who is determined to right this wrong and to do his part to help free other student athletes from corporate corruption that has no place in college basketball.”

Bowen, who was a McDonald’s All-American at La Lumiere School in La Porte, Ind., was the No. 14-ranked recruit in ESPN’s Top 100 in 2017. He was the first player signed to the Australian National Basketball League’s Next Stars program, which was launched in March 2018 to “provide alternative pathways for NBA prospects who are unable or decide not to play college basketball,” Jonathan Givony wrote for ESPN in August. He is now playing for the Sydney Kings.

Bowen's father has maintained his son was not aware of money the father received not only for steering his son to Louisville but also for inducing him to play for other high school and AAU teams, the Courier Journal’s Sullivan reports.

“I mean, I don’t want him to be involved in something that’s wrong or something like that,” Bowen’s father testified in court. “...I still think my son is a victim, and I always will.”

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