LAWRENCE — At the heart of the NCAA’s case against Kansas is the nature of the university’s relationship with apparel partner Adidas.
And, as was true in the high-profile October 2018 trials of three individuals implicated in the federal government’s probe into illicit payments in the world of college basketball recruiting, at the center of everything is a man whose name appears at least 525 times in the university’s official NCAA counterargument.
A former Adidas consultant-turned-government witness, Gassnola outlined in his testimony cash transactions made or scheduled to top prospects, including multiple individuals who either signed with or were at one time targets of the Jayhawk men’s basketball program. That testimony and its surrounding documentation served as the foundation for the NCAA’s notice of allegations against KU, delivered last September and detailing five supposed Level I violations committed by the storied program.
On Thursday, KU struck back — and this time, Gassnola often appeared at the crux of a counterargument that offered a full-throated denial of any wrongdoing by head coach Bill Self, assistant coach Kurtis Townsend or anyone else affiliated with the university.
But more on Gassnola in a moment.
First, KU as well as attorneys for Self and Townsend call into serious question the "novel" leap by the NCAA that a corporate partner such as Adidas and indeed all of its employees and consultants — Gassnola, James Gatto, Merl Code and Dan Cutler all fit into this group — can be labeled as boosters and therefore serve as representatives of the university.
Self’s attorneys said the allegations against their client were based on "misguided, unprecedented, and meritless interpretation and application of NCAA booster and recruiting allegations."
"[T]he enforcement staff’s allegations against Self hinge completely on whether Adidas and its employees and consultants are KU boosters, a concept never previously developed or advanced by the NCAA," read Self’s 77-page response. "Because they are not, Self committed no violations."
The 17th-year Jayhawk head coach was not directly alleged by the NCAA to have orchestrated any payments to prospective student athletes, but this is where Gassnola’s role comes into play: The governing body cited communications between Self and Gassnola, as well as other interactions with Adidas representatives, as sufficient cause for a lack of institutional control charge.
"Both the KU administration and Self properly considered Adidas and its employees and consultants only as parties in an arms-length sponsorship agreement negotiated to include specific terms and obligations to be undertaken by the parties," Self’s response read. "Neither KU nor Self ever thought — or had reason to think — Adidas or its employees and consultants were KU boosters.
"It was not until the NCAA and its enforcement staff were compelled to react to the public Department of Justice investigation and the result of the federal criminal prosecutions of certain former Adidas employees and their associates that they embarked on the unique interpretation of NCAA legislation to define an apparel company sponsor as a booster simply by virtue of its contractual relationship with the University. That was an unthinkable proposition, unsupported by either NCAA legislation or established case precedent."
The NCAA and KU appear to agree that Gassnola played an impermissible role in the recruitment of at least three eventual Jayhawks — Billy Preston, Silvio De Sousa and Cheick Diallo — as well as one high-profile target — Deandre Ayton.
The bitter divide between the two organizations, then, is twofold: that Gassnola (and other Adidas representatives) can be considered boosters, and that Self and/or members of his coaching staff were aware of Gassnola’s meddling.
Gassnola testified that no member of the KU coaching staff knew of his under-the-table dealings with recruits. KU, meanwhile, argued Thursday that the primary function of Gassnola and Adidas was to secure future apparel endorsement deals with soon-to-be NBA players, not to funnel athletes to college programs.
Here are key Gassnola-related allegations by the NCAA and a look into some of KU’s explanations of those interactions:
• The NCAA cites a field report email from Gassnola to an Adidas superior on March 2, 2015, in which Gassnola claimed he met with Self, discussed recruiting targets for the upcoming season and "assured them that we are here to help."
KU’s response: Self disputed having any discussions with Gassnola about prospects and added that Gassnola’s email was an effort "to justify his existence" to his Adidas bosses and is therefore not reliable. Furthermore, it was pointed out that the email was sent five months after the alleged meeting took place, with KU saying that fact further calls into question its reliability.
"Moreover, even if true, the statement that ‘we are here to help’ with no further context does not lead to the conclusion that they would be helping the program by improperly recruiting," KU’s response read. "It could mean, for example, that they would help by obtaining apparel, particularly since the quoted phrase immediately followed the statement that they talked about ‘the up coming seasson [sic].’ In this regard, during the 2014-15 season, Gassnola and Gatto obtained the then very popular Adidas footwear known as Yeezys for the University's men's basketball coaches."
• The NCAA alleged Gassnola made a $15,000 payment to the family of Ayton, who ended up signing with Arizona. Later, Gassnola sent a text message to Self apologizing for whiffing on the Ayton recruitment — "I never let you down Except for (Ayton) lol We will get it right," wrote Gassnola, an exchange the NCAA says shows Self had knowledge of the situation.
KU’s response: Townsend, who thought Ayton was going to ultimately end up at KU, obtained "far more information about (Ayton) from his (Townsend’s) contact at Nike than he did from Gassnola."
Meanwhile, KU labeled the Ayton remark in the text message to Self a confusing "non sequitur."
"Self and Townsend both had no explanation as to why Gassnola made this offhand, joking ("lol") remark or what he meant by it, given that he did not help them recruit (Ayton)," KU’s response read. "A reasonable person conducting serious affairs would not make the unsupported and illogical leaps that the enforcement staff requests."
In profiling Gassnola and some of his exchanges with members of the Jayhawk coaching staff, KU paints the picture of an individual who is unreliable in instances where he is not under oath.
"Gassnola admitted in his testimony during the (Southern District of New York) trial that he often would say things that were untrue in his statements outside of testimony. All of the credible and persuasive evidence indicates that this is yet another one of those instances," read KU’s response, referring to the Ayton text message. "Stated otherwise, these out-of-context three words are not sufficient credible and persuasive evidence upon which a reasonable person would conclude that, contrary to other available evidence, years earlier Gassnola had provided impermissible recruiting assistance."
• The NCAA alleged Gassnola funneled upwards of $89,000 to the family of Preston, a forward who spent one season in Lawrence (2017-18) but was withheld amid eligibility concerns and never played in an official contest. Gassnola is alleged to have promised these payments to Preston’s mother, Nicole Player, at a Lawrence hotel where top recruits were staying for the Late Night in the Phog event on Oct. 1, 2016.
KU’s response: There’s no evidence anyone at the university had knowledge of either Gassnola’s meeting with Player or any subsequent payments. Furthermore, KU did not pay for Gassnola's and Gatto's rooms that night and had no knowledge of whether they even stayed at the hotel, creating "insufficient credible or persuasive evidence to conclude that the University assisted Gassnola or Gatto in getting rooms in October (2016), much less that the University did so in an effort to request that Gassnola and Gatto assist in recruiting prospective student-athletes to the University."
• The NCAA alleged a payment of an unspecified amount was made by Gassnola to Diallo or a representative of the former Jayhawk forward just four days before the team’s season-ending defeat (2015-16) in an attempt to get Diallo to remain at the university for a second season.
KU’s response: Diallo was always considered a one-and-done prospect and wasn’t part of the team’s plans for the future, having not appeared in that season’s final three games. Diallo’s subsequent signing with Adidas points to the payment being incentive for the forward to sign an endorsement deal with the apparel giant, not to remain in school in a move that would delay his agreement.
• The NCAA alleged De Sousa’s guardian, Fenny Falmagne, accepted a $2,500 payment from Gassnola to help De Sousa pay for online classes and the two scheduled another $20,000 payment to help get Falmagne out from under a $60,000 payment received by a Maryland booster to steer De Sousa to that Under Armour program.
KU’s response: Falmagne’s only documented requests were for used gear for underprivileged youths in Angola. Townsend informed Falmagne that KU couldn’t provide gear but put him in touch with individuals at Nike, Under Armour and Adidas, including Gassnola.
Gassnola’s $2,500 cash payment to Falmagne, delivered by mail and wrapped in a car repair invoice, was unsolicited and undesired, as illustrated by Falmagne’s response in a WhatsApp conversation between the two. Also, Gassnola was "confused" in his testimony regarding the scheduled $20,000 payment, which was actually an unrelated situation involving a grassroots team switching from Nike to Under Armour. That deal had nothing to do with Maryland.
No KU athlete or former recruiting target is specifically named in the university’s response to the notice of allegations, though timelines and information from the October 2018 trials provide insight into the identities of most redacted players.
One of the more interesting Gassnola mentions from the notice of allegations was that three senior officials in the KU athletic department supposedly raised "red flags" regarding Gassnola’s involvement with the men’s basketball program. This too, KU argued, is a misinterpretation, pointing to two separate incidents.
The first came at a university-hosted "Midwest Compliance Summit" event on July 18, 2017, where select compliance personnel from the area converged. During one breakout session, David Reed, KU’s senior associate athletics director of compliance and personnel, observed that "these shoe companies are employing less than desirable individuals in their grassroots areas and we are placed in the impossible situation because we cannot dictate who the shoe companies hire or send to our universities," adding that "Adidas parades TJ Gassnola to our campus and this guy has the same rap sheet as Lucky Luciano."
"In response, people in the room laughed but no one, including the four senior NCAA officials (in attendance), indicated that (1) there was any way to control who corporate sponsors employ or use or (2) there was any obligation to educate or monitor the conduct of corporate sponsors’ employees, consultants, or associates," KU’s response read. "The lack of any suggestions apparently was because the four NCAA officials agreed with Reed that the institution cannot control who a corporate sponsor employs or uses."
The other supposed "red flag" came in a 2017 conversation between deputy athletics director Sean Lester and then-athletics director Sheahon Zenger. While KU concludes subsequent conversations with Adidas officials led neither Lester nor Zenger to view Gassnola as presenting a "red flag" or concern, it acknowledged unfavorable feelings toward Gassnola from Lester, who had seen the consultant on campus three to five times over the years.
"Lester described Gassnola as a large individual with a 'boisterous personality' who reminded him of Tony Soprano in look, image and persona," KU’s response read. "Lester indicated to Zenger words to the effect that Gassnola was not his 'cup of tea.' "