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HBO Documentary: The Scheme- Film Review

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Christian Dawkins and the FBI’s Investigation of College Basketball (No Spoilers)

Washington v Arizona Photo by Leon Bennett/Getty Images

Now Available on HBO (Free During the Pandemic)

In 2017 a years-long FBI investigation into college basketball became public and threatened to shake up college athletics for the foreseeable future. No need to re-hash NC State’s connection to this on April 4th, 2020 HBO released its documentary covering the case called “The Scheme” featuring Christian Dawkins, the man who was a the center on the FBI’s investigation. While the documentary sheds a lot of light from the perspective of the man who received the heaviest convictions, it has nothing new to say about amateurism and the business that is the NCAA.

First let me start by saying the documentary is not motivated in trying to find a “balanced” perspective on what happened. Christian Dawkins and his lawyer feature most prominently and the story is told exclusively from Dawkins’ point-of-view. (To be fair the producers do claimed to have attempted to get spokespersons from the FBI, the Southern District of New York as well as Sean Miller and Will Wade but all declined in some shape or form). Being that Dawkins is our guide through all of this, he comes off as a curious figure. His family is heavily featured and a particular tragedy that takes place in their lives seems to exist to connect us emotionally a man who frankly doesn’t present himself as a sympathetic figure. Dawkins appears to be very intelligent, highly motivated and extremely personable but his non-nonchalant behavior and naivety of his youth (he’s only in his mid-20s) casts him more in the role of anti-hero than hero...if you even want to go that far.

As for the other figures represented in the film no one comes off worse than the FBI. Sure Sean Miller and Will Wade have their moments, and we’ll get to them, but Dawkins and the filmmakers present the FBI as an organization working more towards an agenda than solving a crime. It paints them and the US Attorneys as these wannabe crusaders (we’ve got your playbook). The film introduces and re-iterates and re-iterates how misguided the attempt to pay coaches to entice players was as a strategy. They note that coaches have little influence compared to families where it concerns topics like when a player should leave school and who should they sign with when they do...whether that’s signing with an agent or a shoe deal. Dawkins and the producers don’t see the FBI as ignorant as much as they see them as trying to manufacture a legal case by doing all they can to frame it as bribery. Agents and informants who represent the FBI in the film are at best seen as misinformed and at worst seen as corrupt. As a member of the audience we are made to feel like there are no “good guys” (said on the nose in the movie) and the documentary does a solid job of making none of this feel good.

If you’ve seen the style of one sports documentary this past decade, you’ve seen them all. Talking head interviews cued up to revealing moments, reenactments of scenes played by the subjects themselves or faceless actors and the occasional attempt at levity. This documentary fits all those cliches and does nothing revolutionary of note. Dawkins’s actual enactment of vital moments (shot seemingly on location!?) is presented awkwardly if you think about it for a moment longer. Also a running gag is having these very simplistic, unnecessary flow charts label its figures by Dawkins’ unconventional description of said figures. It is meant to add some color to the doc but the real humor comes somewhat unintentionally as Dawkins relates stories like about his suggestion of what should be done with his investors useless bribe money.

In the final analysis, The Scheme is a solid two hours of your time. While Christian Dawkins isn’t innocent in this case, the recognition of his youth and the societal inequities the film presents at least makes him someone you can understand. The film will do nothing to change your opinion on college athletics and won’t provide any shocking revelations that haven’t already been covered extensively in the media. What it does do is give an unfiltered look into the actions and thoughts of these agents and runners who are normally bound by secrecy in protection of their brand or fear of losing their livelihoods. Its recommended viewing.

Rating: 3.5/5

Random Notes:

  • Race is discussed in the film but explored only on the surface. It’s still a striking image to see that almost everyone sentenced during the FBI probe was Black, the players/families who lose their eligibility and are tarnished by the stink of these scandals are Black...while those that benefited the most, who are predominantly White, didn’t suffer much penalty.
  • Speaking of those who escaped the trial but will now have to escape the court of public opinion again, Sean Miller and Will Wade look awful in this film. We knew they openly lied but to see it presented cinematically reminds us that it’s shameful how easily those two tossed loyal coaches and players under the bus. Miller’s denial that he even knew Chirstian Dawkins is mocked in one of the reenactments and Dawkins says Will Wade is a gangsta for how he “invested” in recruiting and disrespected LSU’s authority and kept his job. It is unbelievably bizarre and telling that the NCAA still hasn’t properly addressed those two coaches and universities.
  • A couple of amusing things is the way in which Dawkins unintentionally saved what he later found out to be FBI money meant to be given to coaches after his bank accounts were frozen... and also the line “El Chapo is upstairs” followed by “no disrespect to El Chapo...” floored me.
  • Oh! and good news everyone! NO mention of NC State, no Mark Gottfried, no Dennis Smith getting drafted...heck we should submit this to the NCAA as proof nothing happened