Chris Bils, Austin American-Statesman
Published 11:39 p.m. ET March 31, 2020 |Updated 11:40 p.m. ET March 31, 2020
“The Scheme,” a documentary about Christian Dawkins — the agent who was at the center of college basketball payment schemes uncovered by the FBI.
That was before the event had to be canceled, along with the rest of SXSW, in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19.
On Tuesday afternoon, the film’s director Pat Kondelis was at his Austin home. He planned to host a virtual toast with his fellow Bat Bridge creators over Zoom before sitting down to watch the film with his family at the same time it became available across the country on HBO and HBO GO. He said he would keep Twitter closed during the film, but was looking forward to the public’s reaction to the yearlong project.
“I was so looking forward to my team and friends and family, everybody being there to watch it on the big screen with an audience, and to see ‘The Scheme’ up there on the Paramount marquee,” Kondelis said. “It was incredibly upsetting that didn’t get to happen.”
Like SXSW, college basketball’s marquee event — the NCAA tournament — was also canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. Instead of debuting in the buildup to the Final Four, “The Scheme” will play to sports fans starved for entertainment.
“I don’t know if this is going to be a good thing or a bad thing,” Kondelis said. “Somebody joked the other day that this is the first time we’re really going to have, technically, a captive audience.”
Much of the attention the film has received so far has been for its inclusion of several explosive, never-before-heard FBI wiretapped phone calls between Dawkins and big-name college coaches, namely Sean Miller of Arizona and Will Wade of LSU. Both coaches had been publicly linked to the investigation since before it went to trial last year, and both are still coaching at their respective universities.
In one call, Wade says of a recruit, “We could compensate him better than the (NBA) rookie minimum.”
Bat Bridge previously produced “Disgraced,” which covered the 2003 murder of Baylor University men’s basketball player Patrick Dennehy and subsequent cover-up.
Kondelis said he doesn’t expect “The Scheme” to have an effect on whether the coaches keep their jobs. Nor does he believe it will accelerate the NCAA’s ongoing conversations about how to punish programs or whether to loosen the rules around player name and image rights. That wasn’t the point of including the calls, he said.
“The reason those calls are significant is for a much more important — and I think noble — reason,” Kondelis said. “What we’re doing is showing that the FBI collected hard evidence against coaches for doing the same thing that Christian Dawkins was sentenced to 18 months in prison for. The entire objective of this (FBI) case from the beginning was to take down big-name college coaches and potential hall of fame coaches.”
At some point, the director believes, that objective changed. Neither Miller nor Wade were forced to testify in court, and the promise that some of the sport’s most high-profile coaches would be prosecuted went unfulfilled.
“It’s crazy the fact that all this had to come out in an HBO documentary and that it didn’t come out in a federal courtroom,” Kondelis said.
Meanwhile, Dawkins is currently appealing his sentence and is now a music agent. He was paid by HBO for his involvement in the film.
Throughout the investigation, the 25-year-old convicted felon has at times been painted as unreliable, or as a young kid who got caught up in something that he wasn’t experienced enough to handle. Kondelis found him to be just the opposite, and said that that “we could corroborate 95% of the things he said to us in the interview.”
“The risk normally is that when somebody sits down in front of a camera, there’s always going to be a revisionist twist on what happened,” Kondelis said. “What we were lucky enough to have in this was these FBI wiretaps and undercover FBI video. You get to hear these people talking, not knowing they are being recorded. You hear them in their truest of moments. You hear their intentions. You hear their motivations. If Christian said something in the interview we could prove later was untrue, there you go. You’ve got him on the credibility issue. That never happened.”
Don’t get it twisted, Dawkins doesn’t come off looking squeaky clean. He doesn’t claim to be, either.
“Christian doesn’t deny what he did,” Kondelis said. “He doesn’t back away from it at all. What he takes issue with is the definition that what he did was wrong.”
And that’s part of what makes the topic of corruption in college sports so compelling, and ripe for a gripping documentary. Kondelis admits that in the end, he was left with more questions than he was able to get answers to. He still hopes viewers will enjoy the ride.
“Should this investigation have even happened to begin with? How can the selective prosecution that inevitably happened in this case be justified? I think we answer a lot of questions. I think there’s a lot of new information and revelations that will surprise people that know the story. But the important thing that we do in this documentary is that we raise new questions that we just don’t have the answer for. Those questions, it’s more important to ask them than to necessarily have an answer for them.”
Follow the Austin American-Statesman’s Chris Bils on Twitter @ChrisBils.