Okogie, Jackson mired in NCAA violations

Photo by Casey Miles

On the evening of Nov. 2, the Georgia Tech Athletic Association admitted in a press release that two players from the men’s basketball program had accepted a combined maximum of $1,275 in impermissible benefits, a violation of NCAA regulations. The players, sophomore guard Josh Okogie and senior guard Tadric Jackson, were both projected as starters before Okogie dislocated a finger in an exhibition versus Georgia State two weeks ago. Both will be suspended indefinitely until the NCAA reaches a disciplinary decision.

In the past week, the story has broadened to include Ron Bell, a former friend of Pastner and the individual who allegedly administered these benefits. In an interview with CBS Sports, Bell claimed that Pastner was “100 percent” aware of these violations as they happened and that the Athletic Association underreported the gifts that Okogie and Jackson received when self-reporting its violations to the NCAA.

Bizarre and rapidly developing as this story has been so far, there are a number of questions that must be answered in order to understand the scope of Tech Athletics’ involvement, the seriousness of the underlying violations and the consequences the Jackets might face.

Did Tech give us the full story or is there more to it?

The advantage of self-reporting violations, rather than others finding them, is more lenient treatment, at least in theory. Programs hope that being forthcoming will ease the brunt of the NCAA when its evaluation is complete. If Tech was forthcoming in its report to the NCAA and the players in fact only received around $1,200 in benefits combined, the organization would likely recommend a maximum suspension of 30 percent of the season, according to myAJC.com.

That would be painful but ultimately bearable for the Jackets; Okogie and Jackson would be able to play most, if not all, of the conference schedule.

But the more evidence that comes to light, the less likely it seems that Tech reported the full extent to which the players received benefits from Bell. A WSB-TV report from this past week, which included an interview with Bell, claimed that the benefits could range as high as $2,500, double that original figure.

Bell provided receipts of plane tickets for Okogie and Jackson, not included in Tech’s report. If authentic, these receipts throw a wrench into Tech athletics’ story and will rightly draw the question of whether Tech was forthright or not in its report.

How trustworthy is Ron Bell?

The perspective on Bell’s claims likely depends on whether one believes the narrator. Bell has certainly been unequivocal in his statements, and none of the allegations he makes are directly disputed by evidence that has been released (although many, such as his statement that Pastner was complicit, are yet to be affirmatively supported).

Bell also clearly has a close relationship with Pastner, which reportedly stretches back to Pastner’s time as a player at the University of Arizona. His support remained unwavering as Pastner headed thousands of miles east to Memphis. In an unlisted YouTube video posted by Bell, Pastner calls Bell and his girlfriend “part of our family.” “All the Tigers, we love you both,” he adds. Other videos show Bell watching the handshake line from nearby after a game and attending Pastner’s practices.

In terms of access, Bell is virtually unimpeachable. But he was clearly emotionally turbulent enough to be angered by Pastner neglecting to call him on his birthday. There is a credibility issue at stake, and it will color the way that fans and investigators view the scandal.

What did the administration know? When did they know it?

The answer to this question is perhaps the most important determinant of how severely Tech is hit by sanctions. If Pastner and the Tech administration had no idea that Bell was providing benefits to Okogie and Stephens, the situation looks more like negligence on the Jackets’ behalf than active noncompliance. It would certainly play better to the NCAA.

But Bell claims not only that Pastner was aware but also that he explicitly asked Bell to compensate players, according to CBSSports.com. In fact, one of his primary grievances with Pastner is that he felt that he should have been compensated for his work.

Logically, the recent report that Bell also paid for plane tickets for Okogie and Jackson makes it difficult to believe that the Jackets were fully aware of the extent of Bell’s work. After all, the most strategic move (assuming that they had all necessary information) would have been to admit to all payments in the original self-report, those tickets included.

But if these claims are actually true, and if Pastner and his team worked to recruit players or keep players happy once they were at Tech, the complexion of the last week changes altogether. Bell goes from a difficult-to-believe former friend of Tech’s head coach with a grudge to a whistleblower. Pastner’s reputation would be devastated if he is a compliant coach.

What are the reverberations?

For obvious reasons, Pastner and his staff will be at the center of the upcoming investigation. Since Bell claims that his relationship with Pastner long outlives Pastner’s time at Tech (and given that he claims that he performed similar acts for players at Memphis), the Tigers may also find their past under increased scrutiny.

Bell himself may not go unscathed. In 2015, the Georgia state legislature passed House Bill 3. The bill, which passed with broad bipartisan support, says that “no person shall give, offer, promise, or attempt to give any money or other thing of value to a student-athlete … to induce, encourage, or reward the student-athlete’s participation in an intercollegiate sporting event.”

The law makes such a violation punishable by up to one year in prison and offers academic institutions recourse to recover any lost revenue from sanctions imposed as a result of such conduct. It is unlikely that Bell will face jail time — that would be a bad look if the claims he made in fact turn out to be substantial — but he will likely face some sort of consequence for inducing Okogie and Jackson to skirt the rules.

Friday night’s basketball game in China will pit a Tech team without Okogie and Jackson against a UCLA team missing three of its top players, who were arrested for shoplifting in a Louis Vuitton store in Shanghai. Both stories will certainly outlast the game. Tech’s will define the direction of the basketball program in the Pastner era.