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Lawsuit adds new Adidas bribery allegations involving former NC State star Dennis Smith Jr.

The recruitment of NC State’s Dennis Smith Jr.

Fayetteville's Dennis Smith Jr. was one of the most sought after recruits in America and committed to NC State in 2015. He was he highest-rated recruit to commit to the Wolfpack and coach Mark Gottfried.
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Fayetteville's Dennis Smith Jr. was one of the most sought after recruits in America and committed to NC State in 2015. He was he highest-rated recruit to commit to the Wolfpack and coach Mark Gottfried.

A lawsuit filed this week by former Louisville basketball recruit Brian Bowen against Adidas contains a new bribery allegation involving former N.C. State star Dennis Smith Jr., the latest indication that it could be a long few years for the university as it wrestles with the implications of the Federal investigation into basketball corruption.

If N.C. State thought the trial – where an alleged $40,000 payment to Smith, delivered via then-assistant coach Orlando Early, was a key piece of testimony in a case that ended in guilty verdicts for several people associated with Adidas – was bad, the NCAA was just given clearance by Federal prosecutors to begin its own investigation. Meanwhile, there’s every possibility that more tidbits like the one in the Bowen lawsuit could pop up as well.

The lawsuit, which claims Adidas was complicit in a conspiracy to deny Bowen his eligibility by funneling payments to his father, was filed this week in South Carolina. In its background information to demonstrate “a pattern of racketeering activity,” it alleges Adidas executive Christopher Rivers approved a previously undisclosed $25,000 bribe to Smith in early 2015, prior to the $40,000 bribe discussed at trial.

The complaint reads: “In early 2015, on information and belief, Defendant Rivers had approved a bribe payment of $25,000 in order to secure Smith, Jr.’s attendance at Adidas-sponsored NC State. Rivers discussed this arrangement with Defendant T.J. Gassnola following a January 20, 2015 event they attended together.”

The lawsuit does not indicate whether the sanctioned bribe was paid or to whom, and attempts to reach Mullins McLeod, Bowen’s Charleston-based attorney, for clarification were unsuccessful.

“As we’ve previously stated, we have gone to great lengths to establish a culture of compliance and accountability at N.C. State,” athletic director Debbie Yow said in a statement released through a spokesperson. “Any individual who is alleged to have broken rules would have done so without our knowledge.”

Rivers, who was not charged by Federal prosecutors and did not testify at the trial, was one of several people whose communications with any member of the athletic department were demanded in a subpoena delivered to N.C. State last January.

Whether the claim in the lawsuit is accurate or inaccurate, N.C. State has every reason to expect more of this sort of thing to filter out over the months to come. Even beyond the testimony at trial, the proceedings made it clear that the FBI collected plenty of evidence that never made it into the trial record but could yet find its way into the hands of the NCAA.

At the least, given the information already made public, N.C. State is facing the possibility of NCAA sanctions for fielding an ineligible player (Smith) and Early’s role in that.

Of course, that raises the question of what point there would be in punishing the university for the actions of two people long gone from campus, but that’s a more general issue with NCAA sanctions in general. Never mind the entire case was prosecuted on the legal justification that N.C. State and the other universities were the “victims” of a conspiracy to deliver them sought-after basketball recruits – including Louisville, which built an Adidas logo into the seats in the new end-zone stands at its football stadium.

The Federal investigation into basketball corruption identified several people associated with Adidas who funneled money to recruits to get them to attend Adidas-sponsored schools. Three of the defendants in the Bowen lawsuit were found guilty last month of a conspiracy to defraud universities by delivering them players who had accepted payments in violation of NCAA rules. Gassnola and one other pleaded guilty to reduced charges in exchange for their testimony.

The disclosure of the Federal investigation in the fall of 2017 prompted the NCAA to commission Condoleezaa Rice to lead an examination of college basketball that ended up producing a mixed bag of recommendations to clean up the game, many of which were adopted by the NCAA in a whirlwind rush over the summer – and, as ACC commissioner John Swofford has repeatedly cautioned, may need to be adjusted down the road in light of unintended consequences.

Another set of defendants is scheduled for trial later this winter on more clear-cut fraud charges for steering players to specific financial advisers.

As for Bowen’s lawsuit, which contends that Adidas’ role in financing the scheme makes the shoe company liable for his lost opportunity to play college basketball, it faces an uphill battle to be heard in court.

If it makes it to discovery, N.C. State could be forced to make public any number of internal documents surrounding Smith, his recruitment and potential NCAA violations, not to mention making key people available for depositions – essentially creating a second investigation parallel to the NCAA. The lawsuit also asks for Adidas to be banned from any involvement with college basketball, which, while unlikely, would have obvious implications for N.C. State.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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