Commentary

How to scam an athlete

10 steps con men use to take a jock for all he's worth

Updated: April 22, 2011, 11:23 AM ET
By Peter Keating | ESPN The Magazine

Greg Miller for ESPN The MagazineAs Corey Jenkins found out, con men know how to win the head games.

This story appears in the May 2, 2011 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

IT WAS THE KIND of sweltering Columbia, S.C., day Corey Jenkins usually spent bringing folks to their feet, legging out a double or snaring a line drive. But on this afternoon, June 1, 1995, the 18-year-old star was earning an ovation at Dreher High's graduation. After the ceremony, as he made his way through the throng in the Carolina Coliseum, Corey saw James Brown, one of his agents. "The Red Sox took you in the first round," Brown said. The good news for Jenkins was better news for Brown. He and Darnell Jones, his partner at Summit Management, had big plans for Corey and his cash.


WAIT. STOP. Excuse us as we stand on the brakes and screech to a halt. We're not going to tell one more story about how quickly and horribly things can go wrong for a young athlete. We could, of course: Jenkins is still putting his life back together, nearly 20 years after he first met Brown and Jones. But you already know athletes get scammed all the time. Michael Vick was duped while he was facing dogfighting charges and again while he was in Leavenworth. Scottie Pippen just held a giant yard sale after losing much of his $100 million in career earnings to bad investments. John Elway sank $15 million into a hedge-fund Ponzi scheme.

A full rogues' gallery of shady agents and financial advisers have populated sports pages over the years: Luigi DiFonzo, Marc Dreier, Robert Allen Stanford, Triton Financial, Kirk Wright. And the big picture never seems to change: In 2009, Sports Illustrated found 78 percent of NFLers were either bankrupt or under severe financial stress within two years of retirement, and 60 percent of NBA players were bankrupt within five. In 2002, U.S. News & World Report reported that 78 NFL players had been defrauded of a combined $42 million over the previous three years.

Maybe if the NCAA or professional unions made financial education a top priority, maybe if the Federal Trade Commission punished even one agent, maybe if we all didn't chalk up athlete busts to human nature; maybe then the stories would be different or at least less frequent. But as things stand, here's what all the swindling has taught us: You don't have to be physically gifted to make a pile of cash in sports. You just have to find someone who is -- and rip him off.

So we return to Jenkins, Summit Management and, quite possibly, the biggest financial fraud you've never heard of, to show you how scams like these work over and over again. And we'll show you in 10 easy steps. Just please don't ever try this at home.


Step 1: Choose Your Mark Early
The younger the target, the more likely he is to be vulnerable. (Plus, you have longer to bilk him!)

James Brown and Marion Darnell Jones first laid eyes on Jenkins in the spring of 1993, at Capital City Stadium in Columbia. They were a pair of locals just figuring out how to be sports agents and trawl for talent. Jenkins was in the stands to watch his older brother, Dee, a fleet second base prospect in the Reds' system. The buzz around town was that Corey was going to be even better than Dee -- just as fast but bigger and stronger. When Brown and Jones spotted the kid, they called up to him and his mother, Rachael. "We'll keep in touch," they said.

Corey exploded into multisport superstardom at Dreher. As a senior, he was an all-state QB and hit .403 with 21 RBIs in only 62 at-bats. He was 18, 6'2" and 200 pounds, and he ran a 4.5 40. Rachael, a single mom, raised Dee, Corey and their sister, Kelly, on an administrative assistant's salary in the same Bluff Road trailer park where she had been raised as one of 12. When Rachael's kids didn't listen, she was so hard on them Corey called her Warden. But Corey mostly flashed the qualities you would want in a son -- promising talent, relentless determination, lifelong respectfulness and a hunger for approval. Those same qualities also made the kid a perfect mark for Brown and Jones. "Lo and behold, they did show back up," Jenkins says.


Step 2: Hone Your Pitch, then Promise the World
Establish a common bond with your mark. If he thinks he knows you, he's less likely to feel the need to know every detail of your plans for him.

Greg Miller for ESPN The MagazineTrouble began almost as soon as Jenkins left home for baseball glory. He's only now back in control of his life.

When Brown and Jones first partnered in 1993, it was to dabble in real estate. Before long, though, they had moved into sports management. It was a world they knew. Brown, who was 45, had played hoops at Benedict College in Columbia, and Jones, 14 years younger, played the same game at South CarolinaAiken. Both were confident they could present themselves as the right men to take care of local athletes.

In October 1993, Brown and Jones launched Summit Management, selling it as a financial services company, with accountants, lawyers and portfolio managers, all working to place clients in quality, conservative investments. The two African-American men, driving Lexuses and wearing elegant suits and monogrammed shirts, targeted local black athletes, mostly high schoolers, nearly all from low-income homes. "They played the race card." says Ron Grosse, the FBI agent who would investigate Summit.

Brown and Jones started to attend Corey's games during his senior year, and as the young star got to know them he became convinced that they cared about the right things. Brown explained how they were unlike those LA agencies run by big-shot white guys. Jones talked about giving his own children everything he never had. They always had time to listen, made you feel like family. They promised Corey's bills would be paid, his mom's too, and offered spending cash.

On May 12, 1995, Jenkins signed a three-page personal-services deal Brown had boiled down from standard athlete representation packages. The deal gave Summit 10 percent of Jenkins' contracts and investment profits, 15 percent of endorsements.


Step 3: Gain Total Control
The crucial moment in any scam comes when the victim trusts you so thoroughly he's willing to let you act on his behalf. You do that with power of attorney, a legal document that authorizes you to make someone else's financial decisions.

Jenkins gave the Summit partners his power of attorney soon after the Red Sox selected him. He'd dreamed forever about playing big-time football at USC's Williams-Brice Stadium, where he once sold peanuts as much to watch the games as for the cash. But Brown and James advised him to first see how much they could get from a major league club. When Boston offered a signing bonus of $575,000, Jenkins jumped at the shot to give Rachael all she deserved, even as he prepared to untie the apron strings. "I wanted to get out, get away and go play," he says.

So he took the money. Or more precisely, Summit did; his bonus went right to Brown and Jones, as did his bank statements and all other financial documents.


Step 4: Network Like Crazy

Few major frauds milk just one cash cow. To succeed in scamming, you need new victims to provide the funds to pay old victims before their suspicions surface.

Brown and Jones were masters of using clients' families to connect with future marks. Through schools and churches. Summit quickly built a strong roster that included Reggie Taylor of Newberry (drafted by the Phillies in 1995); Stephen Davis of Spartanburg (Auburn, then the Redskins, 1996); Gookie Dawkins of Newberry (Reds, 1997); Victor Riley of Swansea (Auburn, then the Chiefs, 1998); and Preston Wilson of Bamberg (a Mets minor leaguer).

While these athletes were still in high school, Summit lent them luxury cars, showered them with Air Jordans and track suits, and dropped off goodies in bundles that said, "Welcome to the family." Once they signed, Summit bought them cars of their own, set them up in apartments and gave them as much cash as they wanted, whenever they asked for it.

Jenkins used his money to buy Rachael a three-bedroom brick house on a cul-de-sac. Warden wouldn't be running a prison anymore. She'd been enjoying her in-ground pool instead.

Corey says he thought: My mom's in the house she wanted. She's got a Camry, and I've got a truck. What else do we need?


Step 5: Show Some Heart ...
Perpetrating a monstrous rip-off doesn't make you a monster. At least that's what you need to keep telling yourself.

If scammers ever stopped to think about the inhumanity of their actions, they might end up offing themselves, like DiFonzo, who flim-flammed athletes such as Eric Dickerson into believing he was an Italian count before his investing schemes collapsed in 2000, and Wright, who was convicted on 47 counts of fraud and money laundering involving former NFL players in 2008. Seeding schemes with acts of kindness not only helps avoid the occupational hazard of suicide -- it also builds more trust among victims.

Summit offered many of its athletes their first lessons in the rituals of successful businessmen. Brown and Jones dined clients at the Capital Club, which sits atop Columbia's Affinity building, home as well to Summit's offices. They took them shopping for handmade suits at Granger Owings Classic Clothiers and to strip clubs with names like Platinum Plus, where Brown and Jones dropped fistfuls of dollars. "We worked out together, we hung out together," Jenkins says. "Stephen Davis, Preston Wilson and I lived in the same house. We met through James and Darnell, and we became like brothers. We were growing up and making it at the same time."

And when Jenkins didn't make it, Summit was there for him, too. On the road for the first time, Jenkins suddenly felt very young and very alone, hitting .145 in rookie ball, .224 the following season. When he got down, he called Brown or Jones. The men were more than agents. They were his support, the ones who made him go on.


Step 6: ... But Show No Mercy
You scam to get rich. And nobody ever got rich leaving a dollar behind for sentimental reasons.

Though the pep talks and family dinners continued, Brown and Jones had already bled Jenkins dry. The Red Sox paid Jenkins $288,000, the first installment of his bonus, in August 1995. Brown and Jones immediately started moving chunks of it around, some to their own accounts, some to cover shortfalls in others they had drained earlier. Jenkins' cash was gone within two months, according to an investigator who has seen Summit's bank records. Jenkins got the rest of his bonus, $287,000, in March 1996. It was gone three months later. The Summit partners even grabbed a $1,500 payment Topps sent in case it ever printed Jenkins' baseball card.

Meanwhile, Jenkins slogged through towns like Lowell and Battle Creek and Sarasota, oblivious to the violation. It's the dark beauty of the scam: Who would suspect that those hired to keep crooks away could be crooks themselves?

The money for the cars and apartments, the clothes and nude girls -- it all came from other clients. Brown and Jones had no accountants working on behalf of Jenkins or any athlete. They were running a pyramid scheme, furiously shuffling money as they gorged themselves and scrambled for the next big score.


Step 7: When the Going Gets Tough, Double Down
If your scam is successful, you're going to have to grow your network of targets beyond anything you imagined. And that ratchets up the hustle.

After a USAir flight crashed on its way from Columbia to Charlotte, N.C., Jones tracked down a child whose father had died onboard and convinced the boy's mother to let Summit manage his settlement. From March 1997 to March 1998, Brown and Jones siphoned more than $90,000 from that account. They also got hundreds of thousands in loans from a local accountant, a lawyer in their building, a former president of the Columbia Chamber of Commerce, even a 75-year-old benefactor of a local black college. Brown and Jones reinvested some of that cash into keeping athletes happy, like spending nearly $14,000 on clothes and shoes for Charles Woodson, who would become their first major non-South Carolina client, while he was a junior at Michigan. But they also amped up their already insane personal burn rate: alligator shoes, belts and wallets for Brown; trips to Atlantic City and stays at the $655-a-night Pierre hotel in New York City for Jones. Despite the growing parade of victims, the agents couldn't quite keep their accounts filled enough to stay out of trouble.

Greg Miller for ESPN The MagazineWithout money, Jenkins could only watch as he lost the house that he'd bought for his mom.

In August 1998, with Jenkins in a make-or-break season, Rachael received foreclosure papers; she owed more than $8,000 on her home. Jones blamed an accounting error. In January 1999, Corey's Ford Expedition was repossessed. Brown and Jones assured him it was a mistake and got the car back. Still, Rachael told Summit to open its books. So Brown came to the Jenkins house, and, looking glum, handed Corey four pages on Summit letterhead. They were financial summaries showing dozens of transfers to ­Rachael. "Your mom's been spending your ­money," the agent said. "It's all lies!" Rachael screamed.

Corey was stunned. It wasn't until he called his mother to demand an explanation weeks later that the truth hit him. He heard the absurdity of Brown's claims in his own accusatory tone. His mother wouldn't, couldn't, lie to him.

The reality, though, was worse than either of them could have imagined. Not only did Summit miss payments on Jenkins' car, it also refinanced his loan at the Richland Teachers Council Federal Credit Union, whose president, Andre Lewis, helped Brown and Jones launder cash through bogus credit lines. Summit didn't just squander clients' cash. It destroyed their credit, too.


Step 8: When the Going Gets Really Tough, Split
Most scams crash sooner or later, so you need an exit strategy. But that may be no more complicated than closing up shop. Victims will have a hard time finding you, so it may be years before anyone brings charges.

Greg Miller for ESPN The MagazineJenkins returned to South Carolina for his degree.

Hammers began to fall on the Jenkins family in 1999, the year Corey gave up baseball. In April, Rachael's Camry was repossessed. After Jones told her he couldn't recover it, neither he nor Brown ever returned any of her calls. They abandoned their offices. The Jenkinses were served again with foreclosure papers in June; this time, they lost the house. As a final gut punch, Corey was informed he owed more than $40,000 in back taxes, interest and penalties.

When Davis, by then the centerpiece of the Redskins backfield, got a similar notice, he walked into the Washington, D.C., offices of the FBI to report the problems he was having with Summit. Before long, a grand jury was looking into the firm and the Richland Credit Union. Adding to the tangle: On June 25, 1999, Zhavonne Davis, Summit's bookkeeper, who had voiced concerns about cocaine use at the company, was shot dead at a friend's home as he watched the NBA playoffs. Police found his body in a closet. His murder remains unsolved.

The FBI never considered Brown or Jones a fugitive, but they were no longer easy men to find. In July 1999, the Jenkinses hired a lawyer and sued Summit, but it was months before Brown was served with the complaint. More than once, Corey went out looking for the agents, hoping to beat out of them whatever satisfaction he could. Just as often, he parked outside the house Rachael lost, blaming himself for her now having to live in a two-bedroom apartment with her daughter and grandkids, her belongings in a storage shed.

In January 2001, a state judge awarded the Jenkinses $440,000 in their suit against Summit and both founding partners. They haven't seen a penny. "Where's Corey's money?" Rachael said. "Up noses, designer clothes, expensive cars. Anyway, it's gone."


Step 9: Do Your Time, and Do Something for the Kids
If you're planning to steal more money than you can stuff into your pockets, prepare for the day the law catches up with you. Contemplate your bargaining options. In particular, be ready to throw your partners under the bus.

In 2001, a federal grand jury indicted Brown and Jones on 56 counts of fraud and money laundering. Brown soon cut a deal with the U.S. attorney's office and was sentenced to 21 months in prison in November 2002. Jones cut his own deal in October 2002 and would receive 41 months. Jenkins gave football another go, starring at Garden City Community College in Kansas before returning to South Carolina. He became the Gamecocks starting quarterback at age 26, and on the last night of August in 2002, he led the team through the tunnel of the stadium where he had sold peanuts so many years earlier.

Before one team meeting during Jenkins' senior year, coach Lou Holtz let him know a visiting expert was coming in to brief the players on financial fraud. When Jenkins walked into the locker room, he saw FBI agents sitting up front -- and the expert, James Brown. Jenkins turned and left the room, boiling in anger. Eventually, he went back in. Looking at Brown, who was meeting the conditions of his plea bargain, he saw ghosts in the man's eyes.

After the disgraced agent addressed the team, he told Jenkins, "I'd like to talk with you when I have the chance." Corey never saw him again.


Step 10: Start All Over Again
We call America the land of opportunity because it's a place for new beginnings. Move to a different state, shed your debts in bankruptcy, change your name and you're back in business. Just don't look back at the wreckage behind you.

Imago/Icon SMIJenkins was fortunate enough to eventually change sports and make it to the NFL.

As part of his sentence, Jones was ordered to pay $1,817,537.50 in restitution. His minimum monthly $250 payments would make him square in the year 2609. No wonder Agent Grosse still gets calls from Summit's victims, asking if he can vouch for them as they try to buy a house or car.

Jenkins wasted no time rebuilding his life. He started nine games at QB for South Carolina in 2002, but then Holtz shifted him to defense where he'd have a better shot at the NFL. It worked: He was drafted as a linebacker by the Dolphins in 2003. But his chance to be an impact player was long gone. Jenkins played for two years with the Dolphins and Bears, went to camp with the Panthers in 2006, spent 2007 in the CFL and was the last cut of the Montreal Alouettes in 2008.

Back home, Jenkins coached a Pop Warner team with Davis, also in Columbia after his NFL career ended. He worked in a dropout prevention program and took 21 credits over nine months to finish his own degree. Last December, he graduated from USC, and in July, he'll take over as defensive coordinator at nearby Gray Military Academy. Again and again, he tells whoever will listen: "It's never too late to go back."

Thing is, that's equally true for the scam artist. Last year, South Carolina issued a cease and desist order against James Brown, who had been luring investors into misleading and risky real estate deals run by a company called Ace Development. (Calls from The Mag to Brown's last known number went unanswered.) Darnell Jones got out of prison in November 2006 and went on probation. Over the next three years he failed to pay child support, opened a $45,000 credit line without telling his probation officer and never got a steady job, yet the probation was allowed to expire, in December 2009.

In September 2010, Jones (who declined to comment) applied to patent a "System of Fractional Ownership of Intellectual Property," basically a way for investors to buy shares in celebrities and athletes. "When a Fractional Owner uses his credit line to purchase a perk of fractional ownership, the corresponding funds in the pooling account can be reallocated to the IP entity," the application reads.

Which sounds a lot like going back to Step 1.

Peter Keating is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine, where he covers investigative and statistical subjects. He started writing "The Biz," a column looking at sports business from the fan's point of view, in 1999. He also coordinates the Magazine's annual "Ultimate Standings" project, which ranks all pro franchises according to how much they give back to fans. His work on concussions in football has earned awards from the Deadline Club, the New York Press Club and the Center for the Study of Sport in Society.