The irony is that this HBO Sports project was scheduled to air during the tournament. Instead, it’s playing at time when fans are understandably pining for such events, now that March Madness has been canceled due to public-health concerns over coronavirus.
Those sequences strike the sharpest nerve, as director Pat Kondelis illustrates the depths of corruption within college basketball, while Dawkins seeks to poke holes in the government’s efforts. As he tells it, he had no need to bribe coaches because he was already paying players, despite the undercover agent urging him to do so. (Nobody from the FBI or NCAA would participate in the documentary, it’s noted at the end.)
The FBI, meanwhile, engineered the sting by tossing around money, with an agent masquerading as a shadowy financier who rented yachts, handed out envelopes filled with cash and paid for lavish hotel suites. During another recorded call, Dawkins brags to what he thinks is his benefactor, “I can go to Arizona’s practices like I’m on the team.”
Dawkins makes no bones about paying players, saying, “I don’t see anything wrong with it.” The documentary makes clear that huge money surrounds top recruits, who generate lucrative contracts for coaches, while filling university coffers via TV rights deals and sponsorship agreements with shoe companies like Nike and Adidas. (Both CNN and HBO are part of WarnerMedia, which partners with CBS to broadcast the NCAA Tournament.)
As Yahoo Sports’ Dan Wetzel notes, each potential first-round pick amounts to a lottery ticket that’s certain to cash out. Because of that incentive and the arcane nature of NCAA rules promoting amateurism, he says, “You end up dealing with unsavory people or ridiculous circumstances.”
“The Scheme” takes about 25 minutes — most of it devoted to Dawkins’ biography and early life — before the narrative really kicks into gear, but after that, it’s a riveting, meticulously detailed guide to a system that seemingly invites rule breaking at every turn.
More than anything, at this particular moment “The Scheme” feels like an exercise in cognitive dissonance — demonstrating that it’s possible to miss college basketball and still be clear eyed about its abundant flaws. If that’s not as exciting as a buzzer beater, for now, it’s the next best thing.
“The Scheme” premieres March 31 at 9 p.m. on HBO.