Review: ‘The Scheme,’ starring Christian Dawkins, Steve Haney, Dan Wetzel and Rebecca Davis O’Brien

March 31, 2020

by Carla Hay

Christian Dawkins in “The Scheme” (Photo courtesy of HBO)

“The Scheme”

Directed by Pat Kondelis

Culture Representation: The true-crime documentary “The Scheme”—about a corruption scandal involving the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and an aspiring manager of basketball players—interviews a mix of African Americans and white people representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: Christian Dawkins, one of the men at the center of the scandal, says that he was the “fall guy” for widespread corruption in the NCAA and that he was unfairly entrapped by the FBI.

Culture Audience: “The Scheme” will appeal mostly to people who have an interest in true crime and sports scandals, but this documentary is openly sympathetic to Dawkins, the only person involved in the scandal who’s interviewed for the movie.

Christian Dawkins in “The Scheme” (Photo courtesy of HBO)

If high-school basketball stars are paid by people who want them recruit to a college basketball team, is that corruption or is that common sense? In the very slanted documentary “The Scheme,” former basketball wheeler dealer Christian Dawkins says it’s common sense. The law takes the opposite stance, and it’s why Dawkins was busted in a 2017 FBI sting that led to two trials and Dawkins becoming a convicted felon.

“The Scheme,” directed by Pat Kondelis (who won a Sports Emmy for Showtime’s 2017 documentary “Disgraced”), doesn’t even try to be about the filmmakers doing any original investigative journalism. Instead, it’s mainly concerned with being the first TV interview that Dawkins has given since he was arrested in 2017 and later served time in prison for fraud and bribery charges.

Although the epilogue of “The Scheme” mentions that key figures in the wide-ranging NCAA scandal declined to be interviewed for the movieincluding others who were arrested; coaches who were implicated but not arrested; and officials from the FBI and NCAAthis documentary instead gives a wide berth to Dawkins’ side of the story. “The Scheme” also relies heavily on interviews with journalists who actually did the investigative work that’s used in the movie, but the filmmakers chose not to do their own further investigations.

Dawkins even says in the documentary, “I don’t even want to tell my side of the story as much as I want to tell the bigger story and my opinion.” And yet, “The Scheme” filmmakers don’t follow up on the widespread corruption claims that Dawkins brings up while being interviewed. This failure to follow up is the equivalent of being handed a ball in a sports game and dropping the ball.

Dawkins was 24 years old when he was arrested in the 2017 scandal, which involved an extensive FBI investigation and federal prosecution by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, since many of the transactions took place in New York City. By his own admission, Dawkins is cocky, because he has long considered himself to be a marketing-savvy entrepreneur who’s destined for greatness. And, as the documentary shows, he has a tendency to stretch the truth or lie if it will make him look good or make him money.

The beginning of the film goes over his upbringing and background to explain how Dawkins ended up serving the longest prison sentence (18 months) out of all of the people arrested in the scandal. “The Scheme” interviews Christian Dawkins’ parents Lou and Latricia Dawkins, seated on a couch together, and they confirm that the family’s life revolved around basketball, because Lou was a basketball coach at top-ranking Saginaw High School in their hometown of Saginaw, Michigan.

All three of the  Dawkins kids—Christian and his younger brother and sister—played basketball in school. Their father Lou Dawkins says in the documentary that basketball was the children’s choice of sport and they took the initiative to play basketball, and not because of pressure from him. The skeptical “rolling eyes” reaction of Lou’s wife Latricia puts some doubt on that perspective, and she says, “I don’t know if that’s all true, but I’ll go with it.”

What the parents do agree on is that Christian showed signs of being interested in business from an early age, when he was about 10 or 11. Instead of sports magazines, he would be more likely to read business magazines. Lou says about Christian’s basketball skills as a child: “He was good, but he was stubborn,” and that Christian often had a hard time listening to advice and rules that his father gave him. But his parents lovingly describe him as “intelligent.” And his mother Latricia says about Christian: “My child has always been different.”

According to Christian, one of the biggest influences in his life was the 2000 non-fiction book “Sole Influence: Basketball, Corporate Greed, and the Corruption of America’s Youth,” by Dan Wetzel and Don Yeager. (Wetzel, who covered the 2017 NCAA scandal for Yahoo Sports, is interviewed in the documentary.) Reading the book led to Christian starting a “basketball insider” website called Best of the Best Prep Basketball Scouting, which he started while he was in high school. The website charged $600 per person to get access to information about the best high-school basketball players in Michigan and other parts of the Midwest. Christian’s mother said she didn’t find out about this business until checks started arriving in the mail for Christian.

And showing his tendency to lie in order to make money, Christian admits in the documentary that he once ranked himself as a No. 1 basketball player on the website, even though he was an average basketball player. Christian’s attorney Steve Haney, who says he’s known Christian since Christian was about 10 or 11 years old, laughs when he remembers that Christian even lied about his height on the website, by claiming he was 6’2″, when he’s actually 5’10”. The documentary has archived pages from the website that actually show the rankings with the false 6’2″ claim.

But then tragedy struck the Dawkins family: Christian’s younger brother Dorian, who was a star basketball player in high school, died of an undetected heart condition when Dorian was 14. Christian says that Dorian is still the best friend he ever had. Dorian’s untimely death led Christian to start a charity basketball tournament with the American Heart Association, and the Saginaw hometown team switched its name from Team Pride to Dorian’s Pride. Christian also says he was responsible for getting Dorian’s Pride a hefty sponsorship deal with Under Armour. He claims that Dorian’s Pride was the only Midwest high-school team at the time to get a sponsorship with Under Armour.

Christian makes several other claims in the documentary, such as that he was the “general manager” of the Dorian’s Pride team when he was 16. He says that he “picked all the coaches and players, the tournaments we played in,” but there’s no sense that the filmmakers did any independent fact-checking for many of his claims, and they just took his word for it. All that Christian’s attorney Haney says about Christian’s role in Dorian’s Pride was that Christian “had an eye for talent and, more importantly, he worked.” Because of Christian’s accomplishments while still in high school, and because he was a better wheeler dealer than he was a basketball player, Christian says he decided not to go to college, so he convinced his parents that he didn’t need to a college education.

According to Christian, his first real job out of high school was as “managing director of financial services” at a company he doesn’t name. The company name isn’t as important as what Christian claims that he accomplished while working there: He says he became the youngest person to sign basketball players who ended up being first-round picks for the NBA: Elfrid Payton and Rodney Hood. Again, there’s no independent verification that Christian was the official representative of these two players at the time. He could have recommended that they get signed to his company, but that doesn’t mean he was the company’s authorized person to sign and represent these two players.

Whatever his real or imagined responsibilities were, Christian’s prodigy-like success caught the eye of sports agent Andy Miller, who recruited Christian to work for him. Looking back on their working relationship, Christian says in the documentary: “We were like Whitney [Houston] and Bobby [Brown]: We shouldn’t have been together.”

In yet another example of Christian having a tendency to exaggerate or embellish the truth, he claims in the documentary that while he worked for Miller, he was an “agent or a junior agent.” But Christian’s own attorney contradicts this claim, by saying that Christian was just a “runner,” an industry term for a person who cultivates relationships with athletes but doesn’t have the authority to sign or represent them. (Miller was not interviewed for this movie.)

During his tenure working for Miller, Christian ran into his first major legal scandal, when he was accused of misappropriating funds. In the documentary, Christian calls the scandal “Ubergate” because he was accused of running up a $42,000 Uber bill while working for Miller. In the documentary, Christian admits that his expense accounts were abused, but he puts most of the blame on unnamed people whom he claims had access to the accounts. Christian wasn’t arrested or sued over the scandal, but he was fired and his reputation was severely tarnished.

It was around this time that Christian said that he met a man named Marty Blazer through a mutual acquaintance, a banker named Munish Sood. Christian told them that he wanted to start his own sports management company specializing in representing high-school basketball players who would be recruited by colleges, but Christian needed investment money.

The company was going to be based in Atlanta, but Christian frequently made trips to New York City to meet with potential investors. Christian called his management company Loyd Management Inc., because “loyd” was an acronym for “live out your dreams.” Knowing that Christian was looking for a investors, Blazer (a shady character who turned out to be an informant for the FBI) introduced Christian to a man named Jeff D’Angelo, who was described as a wealthy guy who made his fortune in real-estate. Christian was also introduced to D’Angelo’s right-hand person Jill Bailey.

D’Angelo gave Christian hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash to bribe college basketball coaches and certain Adidas executives to recruit high-school basketball players, who would also be steered to Christian’s fledgling management company for representation. Christian didn’t like this idea because he says he wanted to pay basketball players directly, instead of adding an extra unpredictable set of people to the mix.

“Paying players is the cost of doing business,” Christian says. He also repeatedly mentions in the documentary that he thinks all sports players (including those in school) should be paid salaries for playing sports. (It’s currently illegal for players in U.S. non-professional basketball leagues to be paid salaries for playing basketball.) Christian says that he was initially very uncomfortable with this business model of paying coaches and other officials, but D’Angelo kept pressuring him to do it, and Christian eventually went along with it since D’Angelo was paying for all of it.

But, by his own admission, Christian said he got greedy and kept most of the payment money for himself and spent a lot of it on “entertainment” (including strip clubs) for himself and the coaches that he was supposed to be bribing. Unbeknownst to Christian until it was too late, D’Angelo and Bailey were FBI agents. (Those names were aliases.) And the reason why “Jeff D’Angelo” kept pushing hard for Christian to pay coaches was because NCAA coaches are considered public officials, and it’s a federal crime for them to accept bribes.

In the documentary, Christian and his attorney admit that although Christian took the money (they couldn’t deny it, since many of these transactions were caught on FBI surveillance video), he was not guilty of directly giving any of the money to the coaches and Adidas officials. It’s why Christian pleaded not guilty to the charges, and the case resulted in two trials for him: one involving fraud charges, and the other involving bribery charges. A great deal of the movie is about Christian giving his perspective of being “set up” by the FBI.

Throughout the documentary, Christian’s grandiosity and high opinion of himself are very apparent. He claims to know “everybody in basketball” and brags about being smart when it comes to business. But, for a guy who’s supposedly “smart,” he made a lot of dumb mistakes.

For starters, Christian admits that the sudden appearance of an angel investor (“Jeff D’Angelo”) who spared no expense (deals were done on a yacht and in lavish hotel suites) made him suspicious at first, but he didn’t do a thorough background check on D’Angelo. Christian says he thought about hiring a private investigator, but he decided not to do that because he asked a Drug Enforcement Agency contact (who’s not named in the documentary) to look into D’Angelo’s background, and the DEA contact  told Christian that D’Angelo was legitimate.

Another big mistake that Christian made was trusting Blazer, who had a long history of arrests and lawsuits (which were all public record), but Blazer mysteriously wasn’t in prison for his crimes. Any “street smart” person would immediately figure out that Blazer was probably avoiding prison time by being a confidential informant. And, as revealed by Christian’s two trials and journalists’ investigations, Blazer was indeed an informant for the FBI. But Christian, who repeatedly describes Blazer and “D’Angelo” as “idiots” and “stupid,” missed that big red flag. In the end, Blazer spent zero time in prison for his involvement in the scandal. So, who’s the stupid one?

And there was another red flag that Christian foolishly missed: The person calling himself “Jeff D’Angelo” (his real name still remains a secret) suddenly stopped doing business with Christian, and let his right-hand person “Jill Bailey” take over the transactions. The excuse was that “D’Angelo” had to go to Italy to visit his dying mother. But Christian didn’t try to find out if that story was true, because he said he didn’t really like “D’Angelo” anyway, and “Bailey” was easier to deal with on a business level.

In reality, as it came out during news investigations, “D’Angelo” had been removed from the case because he was allegedly stealing the FBI’s cash too. Haney says in the documentary that he tried to subpoena the mysterious “Jeff D’Angelo,” but the subpoena was denied. The documentary also mentions that it’s not known if “Jeff D’Angelo” is still working for the FBI. Even without the testimony of “Jeff D’Angelo,” the bottom line is that as long as the money kept flowing, Christian didn’t really care who was giving him the money. In the end, greed was Christian’s undoing.

“The Scheme” has a lot of re-enactments with Christian, as well as actual FBI surveillance and wiretaps. And the filmmakers are obviously sympathetic to Christian and his attorney Haney, given all the screen time that they have in the movie.

What’s missing from the documentary is any sense that the filmmakers cared about investigating the bigger picture that everyone interviewed in the documentary says exists—the NCAA’s widespread corruption, which includes the participation of major athletic-shoe companies (such as Nike, Adidas, and Under Armour) that pay millions to colleges for star athletes to wear their products. Unlike NBA players, the school players aren’t supposed to be paid to play basketball (a policy called “amateurism”), and the NCAA is a non-profit organization that gets massive tax breaks for the money it earns.

Christian was the one who spent the most time in prison for the scandal, while other people implicated in the scandal who are much higher up in the NCAA food chain did not even get arrested. Although the documentary is basically a platform for Christian and his attorney to complain about Christian’s prison sentence, the filmmakers don’t bother to ask why higher authorities were not held accountable in this scandal. And although the documentary includes statistics about how much money certain colleges and universities get from athletic-apparel companies, the filmmakers fail to detail or investigate how that money is moved around in possibly corrupt ways.

Christian even names some of the NCAA colleges and universities that he says are some of the worst offenders when it comes to misappropriating funds and bribing players to join their teams, yet the filmmakers don’t follow up on these claims. Christian also comes right out and says that it’s not uncommon for college coaches to use college basketball funds to hire hookers for high-school basketball players, as part of the recruiting process. Instead of uncovering anything new or looking into Christian’s claims about corruption and cover-ups, the documentary interviews journalists Rebecca Davis O’Brien (who covered the scandal for the Wall Street Journal) and Wetzel to rehash information that these journalists already covered for their media outlets.

“The Scheme” also doesn’t adequately explore the issue of racial inequalities in criminal justice. Christian frequently mentions in the movie that he was able to be “successful” because of his relationships with college-bound or NBA-bound basketball players and their families. (Toronto Raptors player Fred VanVleet is the only basketball player interviewed in the documentary, and he says he owes his career to Christian.) Because college-level and NBA-level basketball is a sport played by predominantly African Americans, Christian says that gave him an advantage to establish a type of racial rapport with players that agents and head coaches (who are predominantly white) do not have.

However, the filmmakers don’t ask Christian how his race could have been a disadvantage when he got caught in the FBI sting. “The Scheme” completely ignores the glaring fact that almost all of the people arrested in the FBI sting were people of color: Christian Dawkins; banker Sood; Emanuel “Book” Richardson (former assistant basketball coach at the University of Arizona); Lamont Evans (former assistant basketball coach at Oklahoma State University and the University of South Carolina); Tony Bland (former assistant basketball coach at the University of Southern California); and Merl Code, a former Adidas executive who was like a mentor to Christian. Jim Gatto (former Adidas executive) was the only white person arrested.

Meanwhile, the head basketball coaches at these universities (all of the head coaches are white) escaped arrest and in most cases got to keep their jobs. In the documentary, Christian claims that University of Arizona head basketball coach Sean Miller and Louisiana State University head basketball coach Will Wade blatantly lied to the media and the public about not being involved in illegal basketball deals. (Although Wade was suspended from his job, he was eventually re-instated.)

Christian says that Miller should be an “actor” for his performance at a press conference where Miller denied any involvement in the NCAA scandal. And the documentary includes Wade’s public denial of doing business with Christian by juxtaposing it with FBI wiretaps of Wade talking business with Christian. Christian and his attorney say that these head coaches who escaped arrest must have felt confident that they would be protected when they made their public denials.

Despite all this finger-pointing, the documentary does little to appear objective in trying to gather all of the facts. Instead, “The Scheme” is mostly concerned with letting Christian run the narrative. It’s clear that he did the interview to promote the fact that he’s trying to make a business comeback, but this time in the music industry—something that’s mentioned at the end of the film. (At least he’s smart enough to know that his sports career is over.)

Why the music industry? Because convicted felons aren’t as taboo there, says Christian. His attorney said that, in an example of Christian’s hustler mentality, while Christian was on trial, Christian secretly had meetings with people in the music industry to start his own record label.

And now that he’s out of prison, Christian has teamed up with Atlantic Records to fund and distribute a record label he’s founded called Chosen, even though he has no prior experience in the music industry. In the documentary, Christian doesn’t talk about any artists he’s signed to his record label, but he seems very happy with the undisclosed amount of money he’s gotten from Atlantic Records. Given his track record in handling funds, Atlantic might want to closely watch where that money is going.

In the end, “The Scheme” is kind of a reflection of the person whose perspective dominates the movie: There’s a lot of talk, but not a lot of new facts brought to the table.

HBO premiered “The Scheme” on March 31, 2020.