The first time I ever illegally benefited a college athlete, I was 20 years old. It was January, 2005. I was an assistant manager at Champs Sports, while also a student at the University of Washington. I was put in a pretty lofty position at a young age. I had keys to the store, was responsible for all the cash in the till, and was frequently left alone on the job with only a handful of teenagers to help me run the place.
A national chain affiliated with Foot Locker, Champs had the market cornered on the trendiest athletic footwear and apparel. It was a young male’s dream. The target audience was 18-to-25-year-old men who liked sports. So naturally, athletes of all ages and skill level frequented our store.
The location I worked at was in Bellevue Square mall, one of the premier shopping destinations on the West Coast. Our store did roughly $3 million in annual revenue at this spot, a decent number that outperformed many of the hundreds of other outlets across the United States. I worked here from the day I turned 17 — October 30th, 2001 — until two weeks before my 21st birthday.
I distinctly remember the first time I ever had an encounter with a famous athlete while on the job. I was a part-time sales associate with a month’s worth of experience. Koren Robinson, a rookie wide receiver for the Seattle Seahawks, came walking through our entrance and started looking around. The 21-year-old Robinson was a first-round draft pick who had millions of dollars at his disposal, money just waiting to be spent. If there was such a thing as an elite member of our target audience, he was it.
Having spotted Robinson before the rest of us, our assistant manager, Brian, went scurrying over to the football player like a lost puppy. He followed him around the store, smiling and giggling like a little girl, holding all the clothes that Robinson planned to buy, running to the stock room to grab him shoes, racking up commission one-percent at a time (seriously, we made one-percent commission).
When the charade was over, I came to the realization that a) when I had my chance to help an athlete I wouldn’t look like a doofus and b) you could make a lot of money off of selling to these guys.
I didn’t see Robinson again for a few months. He moved away during the offseason and didn’t return until Seahawks training camp started up in the summertime. When he finally came back, I was ready to earn my paycheck. I was lucky enough to spot the wideout as he sauntered onto our sales floor for the first time in over half a year.
I was nervous. I wasn’t really good at talking to people. The managers kept me around because I folded t-shirts well, was smart enough to rearrange a hat wall by color and design, and was more trustworthy than most of my coworkers. They knew I’d never hot-hand the register or help myself to a pair of Nikes. And considering the fact that most of the employees were at least rumored to be doing something along these lines, I was a rare breed.
I greeted Robinson with a handshake and started talking football. I gave him a reverent spiel: I like your game, the team looks good, that sort of thing. A bunch of bullshit that didn’t really matter, basically. He grinned. He was laid back and talked with an urban drawl. He was chill, charming, with a personality that didn’t require much effort. He was in no rush. He wanted this and that, didn’t need me to hurry and grab it for him, didn’t need the kind of doting that a lot of athletes required.
We talked about nothing in particular, and when it was all said and done Robinson had helped me reach my daily sales goal and made me the envy of my bosses. They marveled at the way I had handled the dude. They were impressed. It’s funny how the simplest, stupidest things will make you important at a job like that. But all of a sudden I was being targeted for management and given even more free reign than I had previously had before.
Robinson was just the first of many professional athletes who I would interact with while working at Champs. Many of Robinson’s teammates with the Seahawks made the store their home away from home during the season, and when they weren’t around, players from the Supersonics would roll through.
Helping pro athletes was no big deal. They didn’t care about price or cost. They had cash to burn and wanted what they wanted. If we had it, it was theirs. No questions asked. No negotiating required. No returns. No complaints.
College athletes, however, were an entirely different ordeal.
Many of the college players who found their way into our trap were better suited for window shopping than actual spending. The only money they had was tied up in scholarships and meal plans. Their wallets were filled with whatever they happened to scrimp together from birthdays and holidays. They couldn’t afford much of what we offered, and as a result, didn’t stop in nearly as often as their highly-paid professional counterparts.
Being a college student myself, I could relate to these guys. Sure, I had a job, but I was paying for my own schooling. The extra money I had laying around was often pumped back into the Champs Sports economy, going towards shoes and jackets and shorts that I didn’t really need. I wasn’t broke, but I was always close. Which is why the first time I ever hooked a guy up, I didn’t consider it to be much more than one college student helping another.
He was a basketball player. A dude who had the kind of game I admired. He wanted a pair of shoes that he couldn’t pay for. They were too much. So I told him he could have them for 30-percent less. See, we had a 30-percent employee discount, and being a manager, I was authorized to ring up employee sales. All I had to do to override the total cost of the transaction without making it look fishy was type in one of my constituents’ ID numbers. I grabbed one of my coworkers and told him what I was about to do. He understood. This sort of thing happened all the time. I typed in his number and all of a sudden the cost of the kicks dropped by a significant amount. The ballplayer handed me cash, thanked me profusely, then took his footwear and left. It was the first of many shady transactions that I would enable.
The next time a college player showed up, a different player this time, he had his family with him. Cousins and brothers and close friends who may as well have been family. They started perusing the shoe wall and I got to talking with the player about an upcoming game. The more we talked, the more I wanted to help this dude out. He was a good dude, respectful, and a great player on top of that. We happened to be having an employee appreciation day, which meant that all employees could get 50-percent off their entire purchase as a small reward. I told the player I’d help him out with my discount. His eyes lit up. He thanked me, told his family members, then dropped more dough than he had probably ever dropped in his life up to that point.
After I had rung him up for the goods, we exchanged phone numbers and he told me to call him whenever I wanted to kick it. We would end up playing basketball quite a bit together over the next few months, becoming decent enough friends in the process. I realized in the back of my mind that the guy might just be using me to save some money, but I didn’t really care. When we hung out together at the gym, people looked at me differently. They respected him and they just happened to wonder who I was. I was good enough on the court that running with him on my team made some sort of sense. And so I became cool by association.
On top of all that, he started paying me for providing him an in on all the gear he was after. He would slip me twenty bucks here, twenty bucks there. Sometimes more, sometimes less. He would call me when he wanted something. He’d come in and pick it up, then tip me for my compliance. I was suddenly running an operation. In the back of my mind, I knew we were doing something that we shouldn’t have been. He could get in trouble. I could get in trouble. But it was a win-win for both of us. I was making extra money and gaining a loftier status. He was saving money and getting all the stuff he wanted. So we kept at it.
A few months later, the player was done with school and was moving out of town. He arranged for a few last-minute purchases, told me to stay in touch with him and a cousin who I’d befriended, then departed. We would only speak once more. He rarely returned to the Seattle area, and I ended up leaving Champs a short time later anyways. It’s been five years since we’ve had any contact.
In the short time period that we were exchanging goods and services, I probably saved the dude a little over a thousand dollars or so. Nothing spectacular, but enough to make an impact on the budget of a college kid. Would it register as an improper benefit? Probably. Should it? That depends on where you stand with the issue, I suppose.
Looking back on how insanely easy it was to break the rules, I have to wager that this sort of thing happens everywhere, all the time. More often than not, I’m sure it goes unnoticed. And I’d say that most players probably don’t care that they’re doing what they’re doing. I mean, let’s be honest. What do they have to care about? If they get caught, they won’t be the ones in trouble. The school might be, the athletic department might be. But them? No way. The NCAA blames the athlete, then punishes everyone else. It’s the way the world works.
For four years, I paid witness to the shady side of amateur athletics. In addition to abetting college players like the ones mentioned above, I routinely saw AAU coaches and “handlers” bring talented high school prodigies into our store and pay for their shoes and clothing. They weren’t even that crafty about it. They’d pay with credit cards, leave a paper trail, tell the kid to wait outside, then hand him the bag before they were even out of sight. I remember one kid in particular, Garrison Carr, a point guard from Issaquah who would play college basketball at American University in Washington D.C., having his shoes paid for by a coach. How did I know it was his coach? The coach was dumb enough to talk candidly with Garrison on our sales floor. And why do I remember Garrison so well? We played on the same baseball team when I was 13 years old.
Things like this were happening every day. It wasn’t unique. I assume they’re still occurring as we speak. Are they really that bad? No. Is anyone really being hurt by this? No. It’s only taboo because governing bodies like the NCAA proclaim it be taboo. And so we frown upon words like “improper” and “benefits” being used in the same sentence together.
None of this should come as any big shock to you. Chances are you’re aware that these under-the-table deals do, in fact, take place. It just seems, however, that they’re usually occurring on a grander scale. With cars and houses and women in play. With agents in the mix, and thousands upon thousands of dollars exchanging hands.
But it happens right under our noses, too. In shopping malls like Bellevue Square, and retail outlets like Champs Sports. If you really wanted to, you could spend a Saturday hanging out by the food court, waiting to bust an athlete for some violation of a varying degree. It wouldn’t be that hard to do. And frankly, just about anyone could do it.
When you think about it, is it really fair? The first time I ever saw Koren Robinson walk in our store, he was 21 years of age. The same dudes who I facilitated in breaking NCAA rules were the same age as Robinson when we combined to commit the infractions. The only difference is that Robinson was a pro in status, and therefore had all that money at his behest.
This is America. Land of opportunity, founded on capitalism, built on less-than-reputable financial transactions. Should we really punish our student-athletes for being opportunistic? We all enjoy breaks. We all like to save money. Athletes, collegiate or otherwise, are no different. So tell me, why are we reprimanding them again?