How Will USD Basketball Program Be Affected By Sports Bribery Allegations?
The University of San Diego basketball program is in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons this week. Two former players and a former assistant coach have been indicted on charges that they accepted bribes to fix games in February, 2010. We speak to San Diego Union-Tribune Sports Reporter Mark Zeigler about the charges the former USD players and coach are facing, and how authorities investigated the alleged bribery scheme.
Mark Zeigler, sports reporter for the San Diego Union-Tribune
This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. So much positive attention has been given to men's college basketball here in San Diego this season, that it's disorienting to suddenly see the sport in a negative light. But that's what's happened this week with the announcement of a federal indictment involved with the attempts to fix games at the University of San Diego. Two former members of the Terreros, and one former assistant coach face prison and fines if convicted in the alleged game fix scandal. Joining me now to explain the case Mark Ziegler, he's sports reporter for the San Diego Union Tribune. And Mark, good morning.
ZIEGLER: Good morning, Maureen.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, we're inviting our listeners to join the conversation, especially if you're a USD alumni. Tell us what you think about this story, the number is 1-888-895-5727. That's 1-888-895-KPBS. So mark, how did authorities originally become aware that this could be this point fixing scheme involving players from USD.
DEFENDANT: Well, from what they told us, this started as an football probe, not a DA probe, but an FBI probe, specifically targeting marijuana distribution. And that's all it was. And that was over a year ago. And that led them to the same group who was allegedly involved with illegal book making, sports gambling. And from there it took them to USD, and the sports bribery, which is really the big splash. But it's really sort of a three part probe, and they've spun off the sports bribery part unto this current case that we see. And it's my understanding the marijuana distribution investigation is ongoing almost on a different channel.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So we're focusing so much on USD, but I believe that most of the people who have been indicted have nothing to do with the yesterday of San Diego. How many people connected to USD have been indicted and what role do they play in the scheme, allegedly?
ZIEGLER: Well, there's three main people who have ties to the USD's basketball program, that's Brandon Johnson, the all time leading scorer, and all time leader at the school, whose last season was 2009, 2010, and spent this last year playing the NBA's minor league with the Dakota Wizards. There is a former assistant coach who left in 2007, T. J. Brown, and he lives locally, and there's a former player that only played for one year, and then transferred to UC Riverside, Brandon Dowdy, who also lives locally and coaches in a youth league. And then yesterday in the arraignment, one other of the custodies was identified as a USD student, he's in his late twenties but there's no really connection that anybody else can see to the basketball program.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, the first person you mentioned, Brandon Johnson is not just a former player, he is the all time leader in points and safeties at USD. So -- and he's accused of being intricately involved in the scheme. What do prosecutors say his role was in this operation.
ZIEGLER: Well, they use the word intricately involved, and that's pretty much it. To be in the show, you said I'll help explain this. It's not -- it's very hard to explain because I think there are more questions than there are answers, and it's not just a case of them telling us everything that they know, I don't think they know everything. I don't think they honestly know how many games were fixed. I don't know if they know exactly the connection. You can speculate that maybe this started as, you know, a marijuana distribution, and maybe Brandon, you know, met these allegedly met the rest of the other seven through that, and then it morphed into something greater and it morphed into sports gambling typically in these cases in the past, what's happened is an athlete has been involved with illegal sports book making and run up huge debts and not been a very good better, whether they have been an NFL or NBA or baseball games or whatever, and then to repay the debt, they ask the player, look, you could repay -- we'll erase your debt you do this one thing for us and fix this game. It works, and then people get excited about the possibilities, and it goes from there, until they get caught.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You know, I have to admit to you, mark, I didn't really understand what this story was about, point shaving and all of that. Could you tell us all how a player like, let's say Brandon Johnson, could influence the outcome of a game? What are some of the examples of how a game could be fixed?
ZIEGLER: Well, first of all, basketball is probably among the major sports -- is believed to be the easiest game to fix because there's only five play ares on the floor at a time, and particularly, if you get a player who has the ball quite a bit, ad Brandon Johnson would, a person who plays point guard or off guard or a leading scorer, who's gonna have the ball in is had hands, who's gonna have a lot of innocence on the game. Soap that's the first thing. And it's sister hard in football when you have 22 players out there, and you're just one of them, and maybe the quarter back, but other players don't have enough influence on the game. So that's the first thing. The other thing people need to realize is there's a different between point shaving and just fixing the game. And it's important to note that the FBI and federal authorities have not used the words point shaving in this case. Now, that just might be, you know, there might not be anything to read behind that, or there may be. Point shaving involves a point spread. And so every game has a point spread in the Vegas betting casino or in other casinos. And so one team is favored to beat another team by, say, five points, and if you lose by four point, and you're the other dog, you cover the spread. And so you can influence that point spread by turning the ball over, by missing shot the, by missing free throws, by not playing good defense, things of that nature.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I see. And you have specifically used the term sports bribery in speaking can us, and I believe actually in your articles. Is that just an umbrella term.
ZIEGLER: Yeah, and that's a good point distinction to make. There's two main types of betting, there's the point spread where you pet bet on a game with the point spread. So if a team, say you're betting on the charges, and the Chargers are favored by seven points, well, they have to win by more than seven points for you to win your point. Bull there's also what they call the money line which is just a straight bet using odds, so if the Chargers are the favored team and you bet on the Chargers to win, you're not gonna get as big a pay off if they win. There's no point spread involved in whether you win or lose. And that's also possible. They could have bet the money line on a game, and just said, look, go blow this game, maybe it's a game that USD was heavily favored in, and just completely blow this game so that they just lose, all you have to do is lose so that they collect the point spread, and we'll collect a huge sum of money. But again, we don't know which games they were, we just have, you know, a very rough -- February0 was the February when Brandon Johnson attempted to throw the game, and in their opinion and in the indictment actually did do it.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with Mark Ziegler, he's sports reporter for the San Diego Union Tribune, just guying us a run down of what game fixes is all about. I'm wondering, Marx how has USD responded to these allegations?
ZIEGLER: Well, you notice I didn't say anything for a couple seconds this.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Right, right.
ZIEGLER: Complete silence of it's an been interesting response of they put out a press release, and a statement, very brief, the afternoon that it happened, and it said that university policy precludes them from commenting on these types of cases. And they included a letter that was sent to the campus community that was very basic and just said there's been an issue and we're cooperating with the NCAA, and the FBI in the investigation, that's pretty much it. And we've heard nothing since. So we really don't want know how widespread this is, [CHECK AUDIO] more players, more coaches, the extent of it. Of it's been kind of puzzling from a media standpoint to see. But that's their prerogative, and that's the direction they've taken.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What I've read is that the USD basketball, that whole outfit over there, is so -- has been thought of to be so absolutely pristine and clean and incorruptible that that's what makes this doubly shocking. Would you agree with that? Is.
ZIEGLER: Absolutely. I mean, this is a program that really hasn't had any problems, you know, the previous coach, the current coach is Bill Grier, very likeable guy, very good coach, you know, he's been a lot bit of a disciplinarian with some of these players he's had, and he's not afraid to suspend his best player before a game, there's -- the previous coach, Brad Holland was there for a number of years, and graduated every player except for one, which is something you don't see very much in college athletics, particularly in college basket all, or men's college basket all or football these days. Check college performance enhancing drugs I've covered it for a long time, and one thing I've learn Friday that is that it's very -- you have to sort of divorce the character from the situation. And there's been some guys who have tested positive, and then, you know, linked to doping that I thought were the greatest guys in the world who would never ever do that. And so you really have to sort of -- we're getting into college athletics, big time college athletics these days, you have to realize [CHECK AUDIO].
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Right, and one former assistant coach who have been caught up in this alleged game fixes sports bribery scandal. But there are actually a couple of guys there, there are more people included in this indictment, and they sound as if they were dealing with some significant financial problems. What can you tell bus that?
ZIEGLER: Yea, the other defendants have had issues, which is not uncommon in these casings, because when people need money, sometimes people resort to other means of obtaining that money, and dollar is sort of what's alleged here, I think. It's typical in sports gaming or sports bribery cases that somebody needed money and they started up an illegal operation, and it just sort of -- one thing led to another, and the next thing you know, they're trying to fix basketball or football or hockey or whatever, and other types of games. [CHECK AUDIO].
ZIEGLER: Yes, I believe one of the defendants in sera mesa, there was a two-hour SWAT team stand off that ended very peacefully, but authorities did confirm that that was part of the sweeping arrest that they made Monday morning. There also were at least four search warrants executed. [CHECK AUDIO] and operators. But we don't have too many details beyond that. There may or may not have been some wire taps involved. It was pretty broad and far reaching. And Brandon Johnson was arrested in Houston. The rest of the defendants were all in California, most of them in the San Diego area. But he was arrested on Saturday in Houston, and then on Monday they executed the rest of the arrest warrants.
CAVANAUGH: So mark we're talking about what looks like a long-term investigation, you said possible wire taps, there was a stand off when there was -- arrests being made. There -- this is a federal indictment. So of course the feds are pursuing this. What kind of penalties are these guys look at if indeed they get convicted of this.
ZIEGLER: Well, right now, there's just sort of this umbrella, single umbrella count that everybody is charged with. And it involves conspiracy to commit sports bribery, marijuana distribution, and illegal sports book making or gaming of the and it'll be interesting to see how the various defendants as we go forward sort of spun off into different areas of those charges. But2 that's it right now. And that charge carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That's enough. Wow. I'm wondering if the USD basketball program could face any kind of punishment if actually it's proven that these players and the former assistant coach did this stuff.
ZIEGLER: Well, that's a good question. The NCAA is, which is the governing body for college sports, that USD belongs to, announced yesterday that they will launch an independent, their own separate investigation, but they're gonna wait for the federal investigation to end. And that's -- you know, this could take quite a bit of time, because we have no idea when the federal investigation will end, if you look at some of the charges and how they're sort of vague and broad, you sort of tie in the fact that one of the custodies was arrested on a Saturday, and rest were on a Monday, you get the sense that maybe they had to sort of expedite things a little bit, maybe somebody's cover was blown, maybe they felt that their investigation was about to get blown up a lot bit. So -- or compromised. Soy they jump would into it, without knowing all the facts or maybe they felt like if they arrested people know they could start questioning them and learn a lot more. But there's certainly a lot more for the FBI to learn, and the NCAA won't even step in. Generally in these cases though, in the past, the NCAA has not sanctioned schools, has not found that other players or coaches knew about this. Maybe this is just one or two players and there have been no real major NCAA sanctions. But the bigger problem, I think for, USD is the stain upon the basketball program, their ability to recruit, can they keep their coach, their athletic director, will players want to transfer, will recruits who have committed to them want to come, those are the kinds of issues they have to work through right now.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What other details of this case are you hoping to learn that comes forth, perhaps, in the next few days and weeks?
ZIEGLER: Well, besides everything? Because we know so little? You know, I think that the thing that people -- that the public is crying out for is the details of how it happened and when it happened. Which games were fixed so they can look back at those games, and I think there's sort of a fascination of if you could find game film was, wow be was that really a turnover or did he dribble the ball off his foot on purpose? There's sort of a human fascination to purposeful error and unpurposeful error. If that makes any sense. So I think that's one thing people would like to know, and I personally would like to know that as well. I think there's some other very suspicious games in that season that were not within that window that the federal authorities have identified. So I think, you know, then another question is will we learn about other games? And the last thing is that Brandon Johnson is alleged to have solicited a player on the current team of the recently completed season in January, 2011, to throw a game, and the indications are that it never went through. But if that happened in January1, my big question is, what did that player do? Did he report the incident to his coach? To the athletic director? To authorities and? And January to April is a long period. So who knew what when?
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You're right. There are a lot of things left to learn, mark. In wrapping things up, I want to make the point that even though we're talking a lot about this, and it's I very big story, these stories about game fixes, alleged game if I cans, sports bribery, are rare. But is it reasonable to believe that this kind of thing actually happens more often than we know about?
ZIEGLER: I think absolutely. I think it's very similar in many senses to performance enhancing drug use. We hear every now and then about somebody failing a testify or being linked to performance enhancing drug use, and we're shocked, but for every person who's caught, there's 10, 20, 30, a hundred other athletes who are doing it and getting away with it. I'm not sure the percentages are that high with sports bribery and game fixing, but I think you can be pretty certain to say that it happens elsewhere. It's happened elsewhere. It's never been caught, but you make the good point that they're very rare, and I think because of that, there in many senses is the mother of all scandals for a college athletic department. There's booster scandals, there's paying playing scandals, there's make academic scandals, but this sort of cuts to the heart of competition and fairness in sportsmanship, and it just really doesn't sit well with a lot of people, and that's why I sort of call it the mother of all scandal it is.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Mark, thanks for speaking with us today.
ZIEGLER: My pleasure.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Mark Zeigler, sports reporter for the San Diego Union Tribune. If you'd like to comment, please go on-line, KPBS.org/These Days. Coming up, classic and contemporary Native American art on exhibit at the Mingei. That's as These Days continues here on KPBS.