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Sports Illustrated backs up Sean Miller’s denial of ESPN’s wiretap report

ESPN is sticking by its report, but now another entity is questioning it

USC v Arizona Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images

Sean Miller took to the podium Thursday to strongly deny the ESPN report that alleged wiretaps have him discussing a $100,000 payment with former ASM employee Christian Dawkins to secure the signing of Deandre Ayton.

The Arizona Wildcats head coach claimed he has never knowingly broken NCAA rules and never will.

“Let me be very, very clear. I have never discussed with Christian Dawkins paying Deandre Ayton to attend the University of Arizona. In fact, I never even met or spoke to Christian Dawkins until Deandre publicly announced that he is coming to our school,” Miller said.

“Any reporting to the contrary is inaccurate, false, and defamatory. I’m outraged by the media statements that have been made, and the acceptance that these statements were true. There was no such conversation.”

Miller also said the one time someone did suggest paying a player, he did not agree to do it.

Still, ESPN is sticking by its report, though it did issue a third correction Thursday, backtracking to Mark Schlabach’s original timeline that alleged the conversation between Dawkins and Miller took place in 2017:

Additional reporting confirmed that ESPN was correct in a Feb. 24 SportsCenter video talk back which stated that Arizona coach Sean Miller and Christian Dawkins, a key figure in the FBI’s investigation into college basketball corruption, spoke in 2017. A correction of that report, issued Feb. 25, misstated that the conversation in question took place in 2016. ESPN stands by the reporting of the story on SportsCenter and ESPN digital media.

Even before Miller made his statement Thursday, 247Sports had pointed out how ESPN’s report didn’t quite line up. One because the dates were off, and two because Dawkins was never a key figure in Ayton’s recruitment.

Now, a Sports Illustrated report is saying similar things. Here is what Michael McCann, a legal analyst, wrote:

According to the source, relevant FBI wiretaps in the investigation did not begin until 2017—months after five-star recruit Deandre Ayton had already committed to Arizona in Sept. 2016. This account is consistent with reporting by Evan Daniels of 247Sports. The recruitment of Ayton, therefore, would have not been at issue in an intercepted phone call that occurred in 2017. To that end, the source told SI what Miller clarified for the first time Thursday: Ayton is not the player on whose behalf former ASM Sports employee Christian Dawkins allegedly sought a payment from Miller, and Miller never pursued or made any payments to a recruit associated with Dawkins.

This account depicts Miller as complying with both the law and NCAA recruiting rules. The same holds true of Ayton, whose compliance with NCAA rules would ensure that he remains eligible to play for the final month of his freshman year.

McCann also wrote that “the fact that Arizona allowed Miller to publicly defend himself in an official capacity indicates that university leaders believe him.”

That is indeed the case, as Arizona president Robert C. Robbins said this after he confirmed Miller will return to the sidelines: “I believe that if the FBI had evidence that Coach Miller had done anything wrong, that you would have seen him indicted.”

Some believe the UA, Miller, and/or Ayton could try to sue ESPN for defamation because of the damage its report has done to all three parties, but McCann said there would several obstacles if they choose to go that route:

For one, both Miller and Ayton are public figures, which means they would have to prove that defamation occurred with “actual malice.” This requirement would obligate Miller and Ayton to not only establish that false and damaging information has been published about them, but that such information was published by those who knew it was false. Media reporting on the allegations appears to be based on leakers, who presumably relayed the allegations as credible information.

The leakers themselves would also be difficult to sue. Although their identities could become known, they are not presently known. Also, information gathered in litigation is often regarded as exempt from defamation claims.

Be sure to check out McCann’s full piece. It is a great depiction of the legal side of this saga.