NEW YORK -- If James Gatto, Christian Dawkins and Merl Code are to come out of their corruption trial with a verdict of not guilty attached to their names, it's going to have to happen the unconventional way -- without laying blame at the feet of the NCAA.
The groundbreaking case, which could rest as early as Tuesday afternoon, resumes Monday morning in the commodious courtroom on the 26th floor of the Daniel Patrick Moynihan Courthouse. Star witness T.J. Gassnola, a former program director of an Adidas grassroots team and someone who became a bag man for the apparel giant in recent years, will continue to face cross-examination from the defense.
And while just about anyone and everyone who pays attention to college athletics has an opinion about the NCAA's amateurism model, the arguable nature of one of sports' most polarizing organizations is now off limits.
U.S. District Judge Lewis A. Kaplan made sure of that Thursday.
"I will not have it, Mr. Schachter, I will not have it," Kaplan said to Gatto's lead defense attorney, Michael Schachter. "You're not going there."
By "not going there" Kaplan meant dragging the NCAA into this as means to broaden the parameters of the trial's arguments. Here's the defense team's pickle: Even if NCAA rules are critical to this ordeal happening to begin with, the laws allegedly broken by Gatto, Code and Dawkins supersede NCAA jurisdiction of course. With Kaplan's admonishment, the pathway to a not-guilty verdict became undeniably more problematic. In a five-minute dress-down of the defense (intentionally done with no jury in the room or any witness on the stand, as to not influence either) the Honorary Judge reminded both sides what the basis of this trial is and why the NCAA's business has nothing to do with the matter at hand as far as he, and the law, are concerned.
"Ladies and gentlemen, we are here today because the government alleges that Jim Gatto committed two federal offenses when Adidas took a tiny portion of the money that it brought in and shared it with the families of the players on the court," Kaplan said. "Now, the purpose of this trial is not to determine whether the NCAA amateurism rules are good or bad. It has nothing to do with it."
Kaplan rightly accused the defense of trying to "elicit the sympathy of the jury" by bringing up the NCAA's amateurism model, highlighting the financial plight of many prospects in the process. Sean Miller makes $4 million annually? Doesn't matter. The NCAA doesn't permit a prospect living in horrific poverty to take even a $50 bill from a booster at Kansas? Irrelevant.
"It was my view, and it remains my view, that the introduction by counsel for Mr. Gatto of the issue of the wisdom and impact of those rules on college players and others doesn't belong in this courtroom," Kaplan said. "It belongs in the NCAA or the halls of Congress or in the boardrooms of universities. It has no proper bearing on this case. It doesn't matter if they were children of Bill Gates or of welfare mothers. That's not the issue."
At the start of the trial, Casey Donnelly -- another attorney representing Gatto -- called out the NCAA and its bureaucratic practices, painting the organization as an unfair one that helps pockets millions for many but none for its student-athletes. Donnelly's argument echoed a position that's grown exponentially popular over the past decade.
And so these jurors were explicitly selected on the basis that they did not have a predisposed opinion of the NCAA. In the spirit of a proper trial, Kaplan's fighting to keep it that way.
"The purpose of this trial is not to determine whether the NCAA amateurism rules are good or bad."Judge Lewis Kaplan
"Whether it was an invitation for the jury to put aside the evidence in this case and the law and do what counsel was suggesting in the opening statement was the equitable result, which was to overlook payment of these kids, which would have been highly improper, or something else, it was manifestly inappropriate," Kaplan said, taking Schachter to task.
Kaplan picked apart Schachter's strategy and put an end to it. Not allowing questioning from the defense that brings into argument the very nature of amateurism as it pertains to NCAA bylaws has got to feel like a kick to the back of the knees for the defense.
But it's important to keep in mind that the men on trial are accused of defrauding universities. Even if your opinion is that such a case is flimsy, that's irrelevant to the proceedings at hand for now. If a jury decides that, so be it. It won't be too long now -- maybe even less than a week -- before we have an outcome.