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January 9, 2024

Taking The Hit

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Pay-for-play may have been an open secret in college sports for years, but former professional athlete and sports shoe executive Merl Code is one of the first to go on record about the behind-the-scenes practices—and one of the few to go to jail for his involvement.
In Black Market: An Insider’s Journey into the High-Stakes World of College Basketball, he details his part in events that brought a rare public spotlight on some of the ways commercial sports interests work around the rules to provide financial help to student athletes.
The former Nike and Adidas representative was sentenced to a total of nine months in prison for conspiracy to bribe NCAA Division I basketball coaches. But Code maintains he was made a scapegoat for the commonly accepted system of deals. “I lived my entire professional life in the gray,” he admits in his book. “But a felon? A criminal who required an entire tactical team of federal agents to arrest me at the crack of dawn? Come on!” And having been able to help provide assistance to struggling athletes and their families, he writes, “I do not regret a single thing I did to help those kids and families.”
During his trial, Code was prevented from calling witnesses to challenge the case
against him. “It’s still mind-boggling to me when you’re telling me that I’ve defrauded somebody when you’ve got evidence and you won’t allow me to put ‘em on the stand,” he says.
“They can create whatever narrative they want and they can legalese you to death until they get a victory. Because it was never about truth. They never wanted the truth. The truth was, they wanted these high-profile guys and then they tried to get me to wear a wire to tell on other guys, and I was like, I’m not doing that. So whatever you’re gonna bring to me, bring to me, but I’m not doing that.”
Family values
Both sports and education are in Code’s blood. His paternal grandfather played baseball at Benedict College and in the Negro Leagues, while his grandmother was a two-sport athlete at South Carolina State University (track and basketball). Code’s dad, also Merl, was an All-American defensive back at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University and played in the Canadian Football League, winning two Grey Cup championships.
Grandpa was a school principal, while his grandmother was a home economics teacher, so “I have a long history of athletics and education in my family,” Code says. “Going to school, playing sports, but also getting your education were very important.”
Code’s life in sports began playing basketball at Clemson University. From there he went to try out for the Denver Nuggets but was released before the regular season started. Spells with the Fort Wayne Fury and the Sioux Falls Sky Force in the now-defunct Continental Basket- ball Association followed before he left for Europe. Code played professionally there for several years before returning to the U.S. and his final playing year, in the inaugural season of what was then the NBA’s D League (now G League).
Though student-athlete deals are officially frowned upon, the current system is flawed, Code says. “Parents have just gotten to the point now where they’re really sick and tired of everyone benefiting from their child’s abilities except for them and their household,” he tells WayMaker Journal.
“Parents are struggling to pay rent, the car note, they don’t have money for hospital bills or groceries, but the coach is making $8 million a year… They’re making money off of their child’s back and they can’t afford to come see their child play. And so parents are now saying, ‘You know what, I want a piece of the action.’ And so this pay-for-play narrative that’s been created by the white media is not actually how the business works.”
Additionally, Code points out there isn’t a level playing field when it comes to money in college sports. The rules prohibiting athletes from benefiting apply only to football and basketball, which are dominated by Black students. “Those same rules don’t apply to the kids that swim or play tennis [or golf or soccer],” which tend to attract more white participants, he says. “And then you have kids that are foreigners who are on engineering scholarships who go out and make good money in internships.”
Guarding others
Code’s insider story has received a mixed reaction. It has been praised as “a much-needed look at the often bizarre path that youthful basketball talent travels” (Roland Lazenby, author of Michael Jordan: The Life) and “a much-needed exposé of a system that hurts young athletes the most” (former NBA point guard and shooting guard Shammond Williams).
On the other hand, one big-name college coach named in Black Market sent publisher Hanover Square Press a cease and desist letter ahead of the book’s launch, alleging it contains “false and otherwise baseless statements.” The book has also been ignored by some in the sports media, though Code isn’t surprised by that.
“Some of these sports outlets… have billion-dollar contracts with these conferences,” he notes. “So, they won’t touch this story because it doesn’t shed a positive light on those relationships… they’re not gonna do anything to affect their bottom line or their fan base.”
While Black Market has been Code’s opportunity to tell his side of the story, he hasn’t spilled all the beans. “I can take what you bring to me,” says Code. “What I’m not gonna do is bring anybody else Black into my nightmare to save my own tail. I’m just not built that way.”
Code says he knows how Black assistant coaches are used and abused in the system, that if they don’t go into Black neighborhoods and get Black kids for white schools and white coaches, they don’t keep a job. “So what I wasn’t going to do was put another Black man in a situation where he was worried about supporting his family or his livelihood because I said something about him and how he recruits and what he does,” he says.
“That wasn’t gonna happen. So I just ate what they were bringing to me and said like, ‘Let’s do it, whatever it is.’ But I wasn’t going to do that to anybody.”
From his inside perspective, what is Merl Code’s advice to parents whose children attract the attention of schools recruiting for their basketball and football teams?
“Please understand that these schools care nothing about your children. Understand that this is a business, and it’s a revolving door,” he offers. “It’s from one Black kid to the next. So if your kid gets hurt, your kid dies, they’re going on to get the next Black kid that can help them win games.”
Schools and their coaches are incentivized for winning; television contracts increase the better they do. “It’s a revolving door, moving one asset in for another.” So when a coach says they love you, keep in mind they love you “because you can do something for them. So, it is strictly transactional.” And to young athletes, he says make sure you get your education: “Please graduate.”
This article was originally published in the Summer 2023 issue of WayMaker Journal.