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Since There’s No March Madness, ‘The Scheme’ Is the NCAA Hate-Watch We Need

This HBO documentary, about a FBI sting operation that ensnared aspiring agent Christian Dawkins, explores the rampant corruption in college basketball. The film probably won’t change things, but it’ll help remind you that the people running the sport we love are garbage.

In a world full of moral complexity, it’s nice to know there are some unambiguous evils out there. But as opposed to, say, neo-Nazis or ISIS, the NCAA provides a benign form of villainy whose deeds are less murderous but more front-and-center in our daily lives. Everybody knows the NCAA is terrible, and saying so makes us feel better about ourselves. Not that we’ll stop watching the games anytime soon. 

The new HBO documentary The Scheme focuses on the National Collegiate Athletic Association, debuting at a time when the network had understandably assumed the film would make the greatest impact. If it weren’t for a global pandemic, a lot of us would be wrapped up in the men’s college basketball championship, the NCAA’s annual flagship event. (The Final Four would have been this upcoming weekend.) In ordinary circumstances, The Scheme would serve as a necessary damper on those festivities. But now, though, without college basketball happily consuming our thoughts, this film’s scornful look at the sport has its own special power. We aren’t distracted by the game’s entertainment value — so we have to think about the dollars and cents. And, also, how we contribute to the hoopla while hiding behind our faux outrage.

Even in the best of times — i.e., any time other than now — March Madness provokes conflicted feelings. Those three weeks of basketball nirvana offer the most exciting and dramatic sports on television every year — all played out by kids who bring in tons of money for everyone except themselves. It’s obscene that student-athletes aren’t compensated — spare me the “free tuition” argument — and the NCAA’s unwillingness to budge on the matter underlines its corruption and hypocrisy. (If California has its way, maybe there might be some day down the road when college students will receive compensation, which NBA superstars like LeBron James have publicly endorsed.) 

But because the organization is inflexible, it’s created a whole cottage industry of boosters, runners and outright vultures who skirt the inane notion of “amateurism” by ensuring that teenagers are secretly paid. Coaches are aware of it, players are aware of it, but the NCAA tries to pretend it’s just a few bad apples and not a rampant problem. The Scheme pours cold water on that delusion.

Directed by Emmy-winner Pat Kondelis, the two-hour film is about Christian Dawkins, a would-be sports agent whom The New York Times dubbed “The Most Honest Man in College Basketball” in 2019, right around the time he was on trial for his part in a bribery scandal that involved paying off coaches, who would steer their players to signing with his management company. Sentenced to a year (and one day) in prison, Dawkins is currently appealing the judge’s decision — and while he waits, he spoke to Kondelis about his upbringing, his ambitions and what led him to being the centerpiece of this case.

The Scheme is captivating in two ways. Hearing how Dawkins and his cohorts went about their illicit activities — and how the FBI infiltrated their inner sanctum, essentially entrapping them — makes for gripping, you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up crime drama. But, just as important, Dawkins is simply a compelling figure, not just charming but also an excellent avatar for a whole system of underhanded dealings. He’s hardly a noble Robin Hood fighting back at a corrupt system with an air of moral righteousness. No, the guy just wanted to get paid. But if he’s not a classic antihero, his blasé attitude about what he did shines a light on how silly amateurism is in this country. It’s hard to be too angry with Dawkins — his big sin was getting caught doing something that a lot of other people also do.

Looking straight into camera as he answers Kondelis’ questions and tells his life story, the mid-20s native from Saginaw, Michigan — a hotbed of basketball talent, including Draymond Green — explains how he grew up in the shadow of his revered coach father Lou and a younger brother, Dorian, who was a sought-after prospect before his tragic death at 14. Dawkins loved hoops, too, but he knew he wasn’t good enough to be an athlete — instead, he figured he’d make his name on the business side. Inspired by Dan Wetzel and Don Yaeger’s book Sole Influence: Basketball, Corporate Greed and the Corruption of America’s Youth, which explored how fledgling basketball talents are exploited by, among others, shoe companies, Dawkins started hustling at an early age, hired by NBA agent Andy Miller to be a runner for his company. By the time he was 21, Dawkins was responsible for shepherding future first-round picks to Miller. 

The Scheme basically accepts Dawkins’ claims at face value, including his assertion that Miller “had been paying players since I was born.” He talks about coordinating with people like Arizona Wildcats assistant coach Book Richardson, but we also hear damning wiretaps with Arizona head coach Sean Miller and LSU head coach Will Wade, where they separately talk about paying players with such nonchalance that it suggests how widespread this behavior is. (The documentary opens with footage of press conferences that Miller and Wade gave where they sanctimoniously refuted any accusations that they acted improperly.) Much like Henry Hill in Goodfellas — except without the bloodshed — Dawkins saw himself as operating outside of the conventional world, supremely untroubled by the rules he was violating. (Although, as he points out in The Scheme, flouting NCAA policy isn’t actually breaking the law, which introduces a note of absurdist comedy to the documentary when federal prosecutors haplessly get involved.)

With a chip on his shoulder, Dawkins recounts his screw-ups and eventual arrest with a slightly perturbed air — he’s basically annoyed that he made some dumb mistakes, not for what he did. (His defiant tone in The Scheme is very different than how he appeared in court after his sentencing, crying several times and announcing, “None of this was worth it.”) But it’s to Kondelis’ credit that he doesn’t let his movie become a glib, sensationalized true-crime doc in which we’re encouraged to live vicariously through the story’s juicy twists and turns. The Scheme is soberer than that, not because it disapproves of Dawkins’ actions — the film reserves judgment — but because it sees him as part of something systemic in college basketball. Something that we all tacitly condone.

This is hardly the first sports documentary to look behind the curtain of the NCAA’s amateurism strictures. The ESPN 30 for 30 film The Fab Five, beyond being a really engaging look at a great run of Michigan basketball teams from the early 1990s, was a pointed commentary on how the players were treated. Chris Webber, Jalen Rose and the rest of the superstar Wolverines had to subsist on whatever their impoverished families could provide, while the university made tons of money off jersey sales and other items derived from the team’s success. The racial inequality of that arrangement was rightly hammered home in The Fab Five, and it’s also a prominent part of The Scheme, which does a good job of illustrating how agents and coaches see college athletes — as little more than assets or commodities to own or use as bargaining chips. 

At least Dawkins understood how broken the whole operation was. That doesn’t make him a hero. (In fact, he tends to rationalize what he’s done.) But at least he’s blunt. “Here’s the reason why I’m different than the NCAA,” he says near the end of The Scheme. “Yes, I made money … [but] so did the players. I never took anything from them. The NCAA acts as if they are bigger than the athlete. If the athletes were all white, and the coaches and athletic directors were all black, there’s no way this would be happening.”

If the tournament were on, those facts would be pushed to the back of our mind as we cheered for a mid-major underdog or rooted for Duke to get knocked out. The thrill of watching young men, their whole lives ahead of them, play their hearts out for a championship and — maybe, just maybe — a lucrative future NBA career gives March Madness its undeniable, unpredictable rush. We love college basketball, in part, because we know what the stakes are for these kids — they don’t get compensated, so they’re basically playing for their lives, which is one hell of an incentive. 

Normally, we can let that cruel reality slide by as we soak in the excitement, which is what the NCAA wants. But the organization doesn’t have its marquee tournament to hide behind at the moment, and so The Scheme’s withering dissection of college athletics’ iniquitous policies stands alone in the spotlight. It’s hard to imagine that, once the pandemic dissipates and sports return to our lives, we won’t embrace college basketball and the tournament all over again. But we can’t say we weren’t told.

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