What Is Pay-For-Play? 'The Scheme' Exposes This Controversial Policy

HBO

Just a few years ago, the world of college sports had its seedy underbelly exposed as 10 of the nation's top basketball coaches were arrested and charged with bribery, wire fraud, conspiracy, and more. The reasons for those arrests — and, more specifically, how the FBI became involved — form the core of The Scheme, a new documentary that was originally set to premiere during the NCAA tournament, but was waylaid as much of the sports world was put on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic. Now on HBO, it'll bring basketball back to small screens in some form at least, and more importantly, highlight "pay-for-play," the deep corruption that runs straight through college sports.

At the heart of The Scheme is a scandal wherein college basketball coaches were bribed into urging star players to sign with a management company owned by 26-year-old Christian Dawkins. The film itself is a documentary that details the entire process by which money makes its way to players and their families from management companies and corporations, violating NCAA rules regarding what a college basketball player can receive for playing in games.

Those rules are to enforce against a practice that's commonly referred to as "pay-to-play" (or "pay-for-play"), and they effectively state that it's against NCAA policy for a college sports player to receive anything more than room, board, and a college scholarship in exchange for playing on that school's team. The bribery plot at the center of The Scheme is just one example of how corporations and coaches circumvent those rules.

"The pay-to-play thing is not a new issue at all. This has been going on for decades," Pat Kondelis, director of The Scheme tells Bustle of one of the crimes that Dawkins was tried for. "What’s different about this case specifically though, is that this is now the first time that the government is saying if you violate an NCAA regulation — which the NCAA is a nonprofit organization, they’re not a government entity — you’re committing a federal felony."

At least one state has already responded to such practices, codifying pay-to-play in the hopes of making it more fair for players. In September 2019, California governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill titled the "Fair Pay to Play Act," which allows college athletes to openly and legally make money from their endorsement deals. It doesn't come into effect until 2023 and is mostly meant to be a prompt for the NCAA to change their regulations. The NCAA, however, have yet to do so, and instead have only threatened to ban California colleges from competing. Despite that, the bill has gained much traction with lawmakers in other states, and it's entirely possible the NCAA could follow suit as well, changing college sports forever.

With additional reporting by Danielle Burgos