The lead prosecutor’s opening questions for Brian Bowen Sr. were basic, establishing how he figured into a case that has once again exposed the seedy underbelly of college sports.
Bowen wore a blue suit and a blue tie.
“What is his name?” Edward Diskant, an assistant U.S. attorney, asked Bowen about his son.
“Brian Bowen II.”
“Does he go by any nicknames?”
As a baby, Bowen Sr. explained later, Tugs Bowen had a habit of tugging on his mother’s hair. This was long before he became the seemingly most undeserving victim in the latest college basketball scandal.
“Is Tugs presently in college?” Diskant asked.
Bowen Sr., 50, never answered that question directly. His voice caught. His eyes filled with tears. Then he began to sob. After 10 or 15 seconds, Diskant asked the judge if this might be a good time for a break, and the judge, Lewis Kaplan, eagerly agreed. As the jury filed out in front of Bowen Sr., he half-turned away from them and the rest of the room, and continued to sob.
Tugs Bowen, 20, was not there, on the top floor of Manhattan’s federal courthouse, to see his father break down during this trial. He was 10,000 miles away, in Australia, where his professional basketball team, the Sydney Kings, was preparing for its season.
Tugs Bowen is not in college because prosecutors said his father agreed to accept $100,000 from Adidas if his son agreed to play for the University of Louisville, one of the most prominent teams Adidas sponsors. In testimony, which concluded Tuesday, Bowen Sr. confirmed his role in the alleged scheme.
And yet, according to prosecutors, Tugs Bowen is not the formal victim in the case.
And that is why Tugs Bowen is in Australia, instead of embarking on a traditional basketball career path in college, bearing the brunt of the punishment for adults behaving badly.
Here are the charges in the case that turned college basketball on its head, prompting fears that the ordinary way of doing business — quietly compensating top players in violation of NCAA amateurism rules — could lead not only to college discipline but also to criminal penalties:
The U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York accused Adidas’ former head of global basketball marketing, Jim Gatto; another former Adidas employee, Merl Code Jr.; and an aspiring agent, Christian Dawkins, of committing fraud by scheming to funnel money from Adidas to the families of basketball recruits. In exchange, those recruits would commit to college teams the sneaker company sponsored. The three men have all pleaded not guilty.
The charges, first filed in September 2017, prompted the formation of a blue-ribbon NCAA panel and reforms, though those reforms are unlikely to change college sports significantly. They felled the career of a Hall of Fame coach who is a millionaire many times over.
They also terminated the college career of Tugs Bowen, a highly rated player, before it ever got started. Tugs Bowen will never play a minute of college basketball. A career in the NBA now seems like a murky proposition.
When the allegations were publicized, on the eve of last college basketball season, Louisville removed Bowen, a freshman, from practices. He transferred to South Carolina, though he was not permitted to play. Then he elected to turn pro, with the NCAA indicating he would need to sit at least another season. Then he withdrew from the NBA draft and landed in Australia.
The average man on the street would probably identify Tugs Bowen as the apparent innocent harmed by the defendants’ alleged misdeeds. But according to the prosecution’s legal theory, the four universities — Louisville, Kansas, Miami and North Carolina State, all Adidas-backed — are the victims. The actions of shoe company executives and members of these college’s basketball staffs defrauded them because their actions exposed the universities to the economic harm that could result from NCAA penalties, prosecutors said.
“These defendants caused universities to give scholarships based on fraudulent information, and that fraud occurred because of the defendants’ lies and deceit and greed,” Eli Mark said in the prosecution’s opening statement.
The four universities have generally pledged their cooperation with the prosecution (and a likely NCAA investigation in the future) while refraining from extensive comment.
A Louisville spokesman said the university was “monitoring the proceedings” and in contact with the NCAA. On Tuesday, Bowen Sr. testified that the former associate head coach for Louisville gave him $1,300 last summer.
“The prosecution has not suggested any wrongdoing by the university or its coaches,” a Kansas spokesman said.
“We have no tolerance for those who would choose to damage the reputation of this great university,” North Carolina State’s athletic director, Debbie Yow, said in a statement.
Miami declined to comment.
The government has tried to piece together the scheme in which the defendants sought to give Bowen Sr. four $25,000 installments over a year and cover their tracks via phony purchase orders and his fake designation as a “consultant.”
Bowen Sr. had accepted cash for his son’s basketball play for years, he said: for playing for an AAU team sponsored by Adidas, for playing for a different AAU team sponsored by Nike, for playing for an Indiana prep school and for playing for Louisville.
Tugs Bowen had no idea about any of this, Bowen Sr. insisted repeatedly.
For instance, Bowen Sr. detailed a 2015 meeting in his family’s hometown, Saginaw, Michigan, in which a coach on Adidas’s AAU circuit, T.J. Gassnola, offered him $25,000 if his son played for an Adidas-backed team. (Gassnola, who has pleaded guilty to a fraud charge, began his testimony Wednesday afternoon.)
When Diskant asked whether Bowen Sr. had invited his son to the meeting, he replied: “Of course not, no.”
“I mean, I don’t want him to be involved in something that’s wrong or something like that,” Bowen Sr. said.
The defendants’ strategy has been to acknowledge that they broke NCAA rules but that it was not criminal behavior. And, they add, the colleges cannot be victims because the defendants felt they were benefiting the colleges by helping them obtain top players.
“This isn’t going to be a ‘who did it’ kind of case or even so much of a ‘what did he do’ kind of case,” Mark Moore, one of Code’s lawyers, said in his opening argument. “This case is all about the why.”
It is also not a case likely to be decided on the relative likability of Brian Bowen Sr.
He admitted Tuesday to lying to the FBI more than once and to disposing of a second phone that he had used to make illicit recruiting-related communications after it was subpoenaed. (He had referred to the second phone as his “Batphone.”) He agreed that he had illegally sold food stamp cards, though he said he had been trying to help people. He signed a nonprosecution agreement in exchange for his testimony.
But he also insisted that his first priority had been placing his son in the ideal situation throughout his career, not cashing in on his son’s talents.