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HBO’s ‘The Scheme’ feels like a commercial for Christian Dawkins, and not much else

Director Pat Kondelis presents a true-crime tale of a man who becomes the fall guy for corruption in the NCAA

The Scheme, HBO’s new documentary about a man at the center of a federal dragnet surrounding bribery and the NCAA, is simultaneously bloated and anemic.

Director Pat Kondelis (Disgraced, The Radical Story of Patty Hearst) presents the story of Christian Dawkins in a two-hour, true-crime tale of a man who becomes the fall guy for corruption in the NCAA and malfeasance in the FBI. But The Scheme never asserts any sense of authority about said corruption and relies too heavily on interviews with Dawkins and his lawyer, resulting in a muddled film that mostly feels like a commercial for Dawkins himself.

Dawkins unwittingly became ensnared in an FBI sting operation in which two federal officers, Jeff D’Angelo and Jill Bailey, were investing in his business, LOYD Management. According to Dawkins, the undercover federal officers expected him to take the seed money they gave him and use it to bribe college basketball coaches into directing their players to LOYD Management when they turned pro. But, The Scheme and Dawkins assert, the FBI committed a fundamental error: It didn’t understand how Dawkins’ business actually worked. Dawkins insisted that he had existing relationships with players and certainly held more influence over them than their coaches. There was simply no need to bribe coaches for access and relationship management firms without following their directives.

Rather than admitting they’d invested in a boondoggle, the FBI and federal prosecutors built a case against Dawkins and his business partners, and Dawkins spent 18 months in federal prison for wire fraud and bribery charges.

Dawkins was a procurer, a middleman and a hustler. He leveraged social connections and youth basketball expertise to funnel basketball players to agents and financial management companies, and he started doing it when he was in high school. Dawkins worked for famed sports agent Andy Miller (who represented players such as Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka and Kristaps Porzingis), but was fired from Miller’s company after charging $42,000 in Uber rides to the credit card of a client he had before joining Miller’s firm. Miller’s firm, ASM Sports, was raided by the FBI. Miller relinquished his National Basketball Players Association certification in 2017 and his agency now operates under the name YouFirst Sports.

Dawkins alleged that high-level basketball coaches such as Will Wade (LSU), Rick Pitino (then, Louisville) and Sean Miller (Arizona) routinely found ways to direct money or other resources to players and their families. Those are explosive claims, illustrated with phone calls with the coaches, which were captured via federal wiretap. But Kondelis doesn’t put any more reporting or investigative muscle behind the claims. The coaches, the NCAA and the prosecutors for the Southern District of New York declined interviews. There’s nothing in The Scheme that illustrates how coaches get funds to players, so the biggest assertion of the documentary gets buried in a pulpy, true-crime format that hinges on a single character: Dawkins. The problem is that Dawkins isn’t enough to carry a two-hour documentary, and he’s also not interested in blowing up the massive system of underground patronage that he asserted runs rampant through the NCAA. He’s mad that he was blamed for it.

As a teenager, Dawkins likened himself to Gandhi, Jay-Z and Bill Gates in a letter to his parents explaining why he wasn’t going to college. But The Scheme fails to live up to the puffery of its central character. Dawkins isn’t a particularly exceptional hustler — he’s no different from that guy in business school who tries to convince his classmates to join whatever multilevel marketing scam he’s peddling.

Kondelis concludes The Scheme by revealing that Dawkins is now running a record label, another industry that’s notoriously thick with middlemen and grifters. Without clarity and purpose from its director, The Scheme fails to make a strong enough case against anyone or anything, and capitalist nihilism prevails.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts, and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism, and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on black life.