“It hopefully gets the kids you’ve won wearing your apparel,” said Corey Evans, an analyst at Rivals, a website that exhaustively covers high school players and their college recruitment. “And in the long run, it’s going to matter for the top guys for what college they go to.”
The shoe companies cash in if the player blossoms into an N.B.A. star. “That’s where it counts,” Evans added.
The accounts by federal prosecutors were not unlike those that the Department of Justice described in 2015 in the sweeping corruption case focused on FIFA, international soccer’s governing body. No one from Nike was charged in that case, but American prosecutors said that bribes helped secure Nike’s breakthrough sponsorship deal with Brazil’s national soccer team in the mid-1990s, elevating the company’s global profile and helping it expand into soccer.
Nike contracted to pay $160 million for that deal — and the company paid an additional $40 million that was not reflected in the official agreement, federal authorities said. Nike brokered the deal through a Brazilian businessman who pleaded guilty in the United States to an array of corruption charges, admitting to having solicited and accepted hundreds of millions of dollars in bribes from people seeking lucrative marketing and media contracts.
Shoe company involvement in college sports dates to 1977, when Sonny Vaccaro — a longtime basketball hand and then shoe-company executive — signed several coaches he knew, including Jerry Tarkanian of Nevada-Las Vegas, to contracts with Nike. For a fee, the coaches were sent shoes to have their players wear.
“My theory was if you had coaches with good teams with personalities, you would sell shoes,” said Vaccaro, who is often credited with urging Nike to sign Michael Jordan before he reached the N.B.A. “I said, Put the shoes on the college kids.”
Vaccaro said that “the world changed” in 1987, when Nike signed its first all-school deal, agreeing to sponsor all the athletic teams at the University of Miami.
“Now all the major schools are all-school deals with one shoe company,” he said. “That gives them control over everything. You do an all-school deal, the president signs off, the athletic director, the coach — you own everything in that school.”
“That shoe company is now your business partner,” he added. “It wasn’t in ’77. It behooves everybody for the school to win games. That’s the marriage.”
Last month, the Louisville athletic director, Tom Jurich, announced a 10-year, $160 million sponsorship deal with Adidas. On Wednesday, the university announced that he, too, was being removed from his position, “until the board of trustees has an opportunity to evaluate his continued employment.”
Adidas manufacturers shoes in China, India, Cambodia and other countries and sells them around the world. But the actions of Jim Gatto, the Adidas executive named in the criminal complaints, show that high schools and summer-league teams throughout the United States are particularly vital to the sneaker business.
Nike, Adidas and Under Armour are the biggest players on the college basketball scene. In recent years, all three have invested vast sums in so-called grass-roots basketball leagues, which exist outside the high school structure.
The three companies have their own leagues — Nike’s E.Y.B.L., Adidas’s Gauntlet, Under Armour Association — each with dozens of teams. The companies shower teams with money, swag and perks. Parents of top prospects are commonly involved with the teams.
During summer break, high school players compete in league tournaments that are honey pots for college coaches and recruiters.
“That’s where kids get seen,” said Tom Konchalski, the longtime New York City-based scout. “If you’re not on the shoe company circuit, it’s hard to get recruited at the highest level. It’s very difficult.”
“You might think it’s unhealthy,” he added, “for the shoe companies to have such influence in the recruiting process — it has sort of replaced high school in spring and summer, and taken power out of the hands of the high school coaches — but that’s the way it goes.”
The companies fiercely compete with one another to have the best 16-year-old prospects playing in their leagues. Two years ago, for instance, Nike auspiciously scheduled an impromptu trip to the Bahamas for the best players in its league at the same time as a celebrated Under Armour tournament in New York City.
The nexus of grass-roots teams, colleges and sneaker companies was a significant portion of the criminal complaints. Prosecutors said an agent was recorded discussing how to get a high school player to commit to Louisville, and said the key was to keep money going to the player’s grass-roots basketball coach, who could in turn pass it on to the player’s family. The coach’s team was sponsored by Adidas.
Though the company name is redacted in the documents, the coach himself added, “all my kids will be Adidas kids.”
The criminal complaints describe rampant under-the-table payments that were commonly inspired by a young athlete’s future earning potential. One player agent, in a recorded conversation, urged that an offer to a player be increased because a rival company was “coming in with a higher number,” and an Adidas official discussed masking payments from apparel companies to high school athletes as though it were business as usual.
In the Louisville case, prosecutors said $100,000 was steered to a teenage player from Adidas. The complaint referred to two unnamed coaches as being involved. It is not known whether Pitino was one of them.
It is not out of the question that Pitino will find another college coaching job; he has survived several major scandals in his career.
In 2009, he confessed that he had an affair with the wife of the team’s equipment manager and paid for her to have an abortion. In 2015, a former director of basketball operations was found to have provided strippers and prostitutes to the Louisville team’s players and recruits in a campus dormitory over several years.
But for many in Kentucky, he will remain a coaching legend. Long before winning a title with Louisville, he resurrected Kentucky’s storied program and led the Wildcats to the 1996 national title. That team, regarded as one of the best in college basketball history, wore Converse.
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