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Spotlight not just on Arizona’s Miller but college basketball, too

Arizona head coach Sean Miller in the first half during an NCAA college basketball game against Utah, Saturday, Jan. 27, 2018, in Tucson, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

PHOENIX — A report that an FBI wiretap intercepted Sean Miller discussing payments to a star basketball player has raised questions about the past and future of the sport and triggered reaction from many that they’re not surprised about the current firestorm.

“I saw it, it happened in front of us,” said former agent Sam Renault, the assistant director of the Sports Law and Business program at Arizona State’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. “There were players that I lost because I wasn’t willing to play this way. But it’s not a surprise. This is happening everywhere. It’s the cost of doing business if that’s the world you want to be in.”

On Friday, ESPN reported the FBI had recorded a conversation involving Arizona coach Sean Miller and the possible payment of $100,000 to Deandre Ayton, now a standout freshman with the Wildcats. Miller didn’t coach on Saturday in the Wildcats’ loss to the Oregon Ducks in Eugene.

Despite the negative spotlight cast on the sport, many fans, players in major sports leagues and others said they weren’t surprised. Renault, who represented mostly NFL players and former coaches, believes “the average fan probably doesn’t realize the extent to which all this goes on.”

“There’s a lot of prominent people who are on TV now who were involved in this and have talked about it in the past but it really is, it’s everywhere, it’s something that’s pretty commonplace,” he said. “Not everyone is doing it but there’s enough where it really doesn’t come as a surprise.”

Young basketball players are prey for unscrupulous figures, Renault said. The unregulated club basketball scene makes it easy to access the young stars and their families.

Ayton’s parents have denied involvement in any illegal activity as their son looked at colleges. As a junior and senior, Ayton attempted Hillcrest Prep Academy.

“(In) basketball, you can identify a star player in basketball as early as eighth, ninth grade,” Renault said. “So it’s much easier for agents to identify and invest early in the top talent.”

Miller has not talked since the report but did issue a statement that said he was confident he would be “vindicated.”

If the report is true, Miller could be indicted under federal charges by the prosecutor.

“Not only that but this could lead to other people at the U of A and perhaps other coaches and individuals in other schools and universities,” Valley attorney and legal commentator Monica Lindstrom said. “It could also tie into certain players. If the players or the players’ families were paid, it’s possible that they would be involved in the legal wranglings as well.”

If untrue, Lindstrom said it’s possible Miller would take action.

“It is possible if this conversation never occurred, if the conversation is not in a wiretap and Sean Miller had no conversation whatsoever with Christopher Dawkins that was similar to this, that Miller could turn around and go after the reporter and his sources for defamation,“ Lindstrom said. “That’s a very difficult case when you go against the media like that but if the media did not have a good faith basis and evidence to go forth then Sean Miller could have a good case.”

The FBI several years ago decided to set up new policies to pursue public corruption, and since the university is publically funded, it is under the scrutiny of the FBI. How deep will it pursue the corruption?

“I don’t want to say yes or no without really knowing for sure,” Renault said. “ I think with the FBI involved and the scope of what it looks like they’re uncovered so far, I’d say it’s a pretty safe guess but I don’t know for sure. It’s possible that the FBI is going stop at some point and realize that this is just too big or maybe it’s not worth pursuing or they don’t have the resources to do it.”

As for arriving at a cleaner version of college basketball in the future, many agree there is no easy answer.

Some think this latest scandal makes a strong case for paying players. Renault said “a lot of people want to talk” about it, but this isn’t going to be an easy fix.

“I think there’s a good argument to make this a free market,” Renault said. “You’ve got a lot of people advocating for that where players should be able to profit off of their own abilities. But I think it would undermine the entire system as it stands now and I don’t think there’s a good solution in place that we could shift to that without a lot of major issues in doing that.

“But if you did allow players to at least profit off of their name, image, and likeness and maybe not their athletic abilities then maybe that would put a stop to this to some degree.”

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