RICHMOND, Va. (CN) — A lawyer for a former top-ranked college basketball prospect whose NCAA eligibility was stripped after a pay-for-play scandal told a Fourth Circuit panel Friday that his client should be able to bring racketeering claims against Adidas.
The hearing revolved around Brian Bowen II's standing to bring a case under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations, or RICO, Act based on losing his eligibility to play college basketball after his father was bribed to persuade him to go to the University of Louisville.
A federal judge in South Carolina ruled last year that NCAA eligibility does not count as an injury to property or business, which is required for a RICO claim. That decision prompted the appeal to the Richmond, Virginia-based Fourth Circuit.
Bowen says he was the victim of a scheme by Adidas to bribe the families of the best high school basketball prospects to commit to Adidas-sponsored schools. After it was found that Bowen’s father had accepted payments to encourage his son to play at Louisville, Bowen was deemed ineligible to play NCAA basketball.
His lawyer William “Billy” Wilkins of Nexsen Pruet argues that by costing him his NCAA eligibility, Adidas had ruined Bowen’s chances of making it to the NBA. He also says Adidas had taken away all his client was entitled to as a student-athlete at Louisville.
Bowen had all the makings of a future NBA first-round draft pick as a high schooler. He was rated as a five-star college prospect and was even named as a McDonald’s All-American his senior year. ESPN ranked him as the 14th best player in his graduating class.
The 6-foot-6 small forward fielded offers from a variety of basketball powerhouses including Michigan State and UCLA. Bowen instead committed to Louisville, a move that made his father, Brian Bowen Sr., $100,000 from Adidas.
The FBI investigated and determined that the bribes had been given a month into Bowen’s first college semester, meaning he never suited up for a college game. Louisville head coach Rick Pitino lost his job in the scandal and several conspirators went to jail.
Despite Friday's Fourth Circuit hearing revolving around standing for bringing a RICO suit, U.S. Circuit Judge Robert B. King wanted to let the defense know his thoughts on paying for student-athletes to attend Adidas-sponsored schools.
“A lot of things in this record stink,” said King, a Bill Clinton appointee. “Companies like Adidas need to clean up their act.”
King pulled no punches while questioning lawyers for the sportswear giant.
“In my view he’s a victim of all of it,” King said of Bowen.
The 82-year-old judge also asked Bowen's lawyer about the definition of a RICO case, stating that he was around when the RICO Act was created.
“It wasn’t supposed to be stretched this far, right?” King asked Wilkins.
While King focused on the scheme pulled by Adidas, U.S. Circuit Judge Toby J. Heytens, a Joe Biden appointee, wanted the parties to establish what injury to business occurred.
Heytens asked Wilkins what authority Bowen would have to sue for breach of contract in the state of Kentucky. The attorney responded by claiming that Bowen had entitlements, including high quality coaching and top-class facilities, that were taken. His argument revolved around the fact that by losing his eligibility, Bowen was not given the proper training needed to become a NBA player.
Adidas’s lawyer, William Taft V of Debevoise & Plimpton, defended the district court's dismissal of the case, claiming that Bowen was still able to complete his schooling with the scholarship he was given and that no right was violated by him not being able to play basketball.
Wilkins rebutted by telling the judges that Bowen did not go to Louisville for its science labs or research facilities, but rather to play basketball. He likened the situation to that of a pilot whose pilot's license was taken. Taft disagreed.
“A pilot's license doesn’t give you the right to work at an airline,” Taft responded.
Heytens pushed back, giving Taft a scenario to consider. The judge asked if the attorney would still not consider it an injury to business if former NBA No. 1 draft pick Zion Williamson had been injured a week before the draft by an organized crime group.
Taft said that because Williamson had still not obtained an NBA contract, it would not count as an injury to business.
The attorney cited Jackson v. Drake University, a case in the 1990s where a basketball player sued for breach of contract after he was not given playing time. A federal judge ruled at the time that Drake University did not breach a contract because the player's scholarship still applied regardless of playing time.
The crux of the argument revolved around what Bowen considered entitlements versus what Adidas considered expectations. Taft argued that Bowen had a right to a free education but everything else, whether it be nutrition or weight training, fell under expectations.
“Of course you don’t have a constitutional right to play basketball,” Wilkins countered. “But he did have a right to be on the team.”
Heytens and King were joined on the three-judge panel by U.S. Circuit Judge Allison Jones Rushing, a Donald Trump appointee. The judges did not indicate when they would issue a ruling.
After losing his college eligibility, Bowen played a season in Australia’s NBL, another path to the NBA that has since become more popular with the success of NBA players like Lamelo Ball. Bowen averaged 6 points a game and was never selected in the NBA draft.
Bowen was signed as a free agent to the Indiana Pacers. He averaged just 3.8 minutes over two seasons with the Pacers. Bowen was waived in March 2022 by the Iowa Wolves after signing with the team the previous October.
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