It Turns Out Fixing Games for Money Is Illegal!

On April 9, 2011, former University of San Diego point guard Brandon Johnson was arrested in Houston and was accused of fixing a college basketball game for money.  Johnson was one of ten people indicted on April 11 on charges that included sports bribery, illegal sports bookmaking, and marijuana distribution.  In the U.S., the accused are presumed innocent until proven guilty, yet allegations like these are especially damning to a USD athletics department with an impeccable record of NCAA compliance.  The FBI is currently investigating USD’s involvement in the bribery scheme.

Johnson, USD’s all-time leading scorer, was a fixture in the Torero lineup for years.  During his career, he amassed 1,790 points and 525 assists.  He hit the game-winning shot in the lone NCAA Tournament victory for USD in 2008.  Mr. Johnson stands accused of fixing a February 2010 game for monetary gain.  Additionally, prosecutors allege he approached an individual about influencing a game in January 2011 in exchange for a bribe. 

If these allegations against Johnson are true, the public would do well to look at the circumstances that contributed to his situation.  At this point, it is unknown whether he had volunteered his services in hopes of making a quick buck or if he was in debt to some of the others in the scheme and this was his way out.  If it were the former case, Johnson’s actions will go down as the most ultimate betrayal to anyone associated with this school.  If it were the latter, his actions will not be viewed so harshly, but it raises a multitude of questions concerning big-time college athletics.  Some people advocate putting a pay system in place for college athletes, but such a plan would not be feasible in the Title IX environment.  Even if college athletes drew wages in the hopes of cutting down on predatory practices by sports agents, it cannot be said that scandals like these will disappear entirely.  Everyone wants to make a quick buck, by hook or by crook.  Johnson may have been in a situation where he felt trapped, and it should certainly be taken into consideration before the court of public opinion vilifies him.  According to an April 20 San Diego Union Tribune article, the indictment says Johnson “solicited an individual to affect the outcome of USD basketball games” in January 2011, after his college career had ended.  If this allegation is true, it stands clear that Brandon Johnson was a victim in every way, shape, or form.  The actions that the prosecutors are alleging indicate Johnson as being a perpetrator of the greatest harm to the integrity of sports here at our school.

One of the most famous athletes in USD history, Johnson had the tremendous power to influence games.  As a point guard who usually received the most playing time game to game, Johnson probably had the best opportunity to influence the outcome of games due to purposeful “mistakes.”  Odd things such as errant air balls or blatant traveling violations are two examples of red flags prosecutors will look for.  The game of basketball, with as much back and forth action as it has, is one of the easiest to guarantee a point spread victory for the other side due to one’s play.  Because USD is not a big-time program, it may seem that excess wagering on non-conference games would set off an alarm to the Vegas sportsbooks. 

In a written statement, USD President Mary Lyons said that “the incidents that have brought our University into the national spotlight are indeed serious, but they do not define us.”  The point shaving scandal also seems to be a hot topic on campus.  While in the bookstore the other day, a friend and I joked about the story and Mary Lyons getting airtime on ESPN Sportscenter, which is shown at the USD Torero Store.  Walking through campus, this story definitely seems to be on the minds of a great many USD students. When the story isn’t on ESPN, it’s in all the major national newspapers.  The San Diego Union-Tribune even asked law students for their take on the story.  “Obviously, it reflects poorly on the school,” said Vijay A. Bal, a 2L classmate of mine.  “But I don’t think the actions of a few will reflect on the many. The university does so much good. It’s a very ethical place.” 

Brad Holland was the USD basketball coach who recruited Brandon Johnson.  He played in a fixed game while a senior at UCLA.  Boston College came to campus to play a game in which the Bruins were favored by 15 to 18 points.  The Bruins ended up winning by 22.  Four of the BC players were later convicted for conspiracy to sports bribery.  In a San Diego Union-Tribune article from April 17, Holland explained how careful one needs to be regarding sports betting.  He told his team, “Do not talk to anyone at any time on or off campus when someone asks: ‘Who’s injured?  How are you feeling about the team?’”  Although there is no indication of the relation between Holland’s experience and Johnson’s current troubles, it does seem paradoxical that Coach Holland will bind them together forever.

On April 15, USD President Mary E. Lyons said that she and the school’s trustees have “unwavering support” for men’s basketball coach Bill Grier and athletic director Ky Snyder as the FBI investigates the bribery case.  Lyons added, “No institution is ever immune from difficulties, and this is a lesson that we’ve learned this week, for sure.”  The scandal has rocked this small, Catholic university and it seems that this administration is circling the wagons and will overcome this rather large speed bump.

Although things may seem grim for the Toreros, there is a silver lining to all this. There is a valuable lesson imparted on the college athletes playing here right now.  Not only that, the current team is made up entirely of Bill Grier’s recruits, and they can only get better.  In fact, Grier just signed Orange County’s top player, Christopher Anderson, to a letter of intent.  Provided the FBI investigation comes up empty regarding USD’s involvement, Grier and his squad will be putting this scandal behind them.  Let’s all get out there and root for the Toreros this fall when they come back hungry to prove that they’re playing for keeps.

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