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Court documents allege Nike executives were willing to pay Zion Williamson and others

Michael Avenatti charged in extortion scheme against Nike

Michael Avenatti was arrested and charged for trying to extort money against Nike, claiming he had damaging information about corruption within the brand.
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Michael Avenatti was arrested and charged for trying to extort money against Nike, claiming he had damaging information about corruption within the brand.

Facing federal extortion charges for his threats to reveal corruption in Nike’s youth basketball circuit, lawyer Michael Avenatti on Wednesday provided a peek into the information he’s gathered to defend himself.

A motion filed in a New York federal court by Avenatti’s lawyers included allegations of widespread payments to players in Nike’s Elite Youth Basketball League, including plans to pay former Duke star Zion Williamson at least $35,000; former Indiana player Romeo Langford $20,000; and another unnamed player $15,000. The money would enable the players to participate in the Nike EYBL summer league as high school players, according to the allegations.

According to the federal documents, a text message from Nike EYB director Carlton DeBose to Nike EYB manager Jamal James and Nike recruiting coordinator John Stovall said that DeBose “was willing to pay Langford, Zion and (an unnamed player who is a minor) the $70,000 and that they should ‘stay aggressive’ while he got ‘creative’ with the (Nike) budget.”

The motion includes no evidence any of the players received any money or were even made aware of the payment offers.

Jon Jackson, Duke’s deputy athletics director for men’s basketball and external affairs, said Thursday, “As we have stated previously, all Duke student-athletes are subject to a thorough review to ensure their eligibility. Beyond that, we have no further comment on this matter.”

In February 2017, when Williamson was a junior at Spartanburg (S.C.) Day School, “Stovall informed James and DeBose that they still had ‘not presented our new offer’ to Zion Williamson but agreed that it was not a good idea ‘to put it in print,’ ” according to the federal documents.

The Michael Avenatti case

Prior to his one season at Duke, Williamson played summer-league basketball for the S.C. Hornets, who weren’t funded by a shoe company, and the S.C. Supreme, an Adidas-sponsored team. Williamson was the No. 1 pick in the 2019 NBA draft.

The 50-page document, first reported by Yahoo and obtained by The News & Observer, is part of Avenatti’s motion to dismiss the extortion case against him. The federal government charged him with attempting to shake down Nike by demanding a $1.5 million payment to not reveal allegations of corruption. Avenatti has plead not guilty.

Avenatti represents Gary Franklin, who coaches the Nike-funded California Supreme summer basketball team. According to the motion, Franklin claims Nike threatened to end its funding of his team if he didn’t participate in a payment scheme to his top players. They included including DeAndre Ayton, the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA draft after playing one season at Arizona, and Bol Bol, a second round pick in the 2019 NBA draft after playing one season at Oregon.

Franklin alleges that Nike executives DeBose, James and Stovall directed the payment scheme.

An FBI investigation into corruption in college basketball led to charges in 2017 against Adidas executive James Gatto and consultant Merl Code for their involvement in payments to players, including former N.C. State star Dennis Smith Jr. Gatto and Code were found guilty at trial in 2018.

Zion Williamson and the Adidas case

Williamson was also mentioned in the Adidas case. At trial, documents with contents of a phone call between Kansas assistant coach Kurtis Townsend and Code allege requests for money and housing made by Williamson’s family. Those documents were not allowed into evidence at trial.

On Sept. 28, 2017, a few days after the FBI’s investigation became public, Lee Anderson, Williamson’s stepfather, told Spartanburg television station WSPA “no one from Adidas has approached Zion or his family.”

“If anyone approached the family without Zion’s best interests in mind we would simply walk away,” Anderson said at the time, according to WSPA. “No one outside of the immediate family will have any say or sway on Zion’s decision on where he’ll go to school.”

In October 2018, Duke officials said they were confident Williamson’s eligibility had not been compromised.

No Nike employees have been charged with any crimes related to the government’s investigation. DeBose, James and Stovall remain employed by Nike.

When Avenatti was charged with extortion last March, Nike released a statement saying it has cooperated with the federal government in its investigation into corruption in college basketball and that it “firmly believes in ethical and fair play.”

In court documents related to his case, Avenatti alleges that Nike paid more than 100 players and that Nike executives provided advice to Franklin on how to file phony invoices to make the payments to Ayton and Bol look like travel expenses.

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An Illinois native, Steve Wiseman has covered Duke athletics since 2010 for the Durham Herald-Sun and Raleigh News & Observer. Prior to his arrival in Durham, he worked for newspapers in Columbia and Spartanburg, S.C., Biloxi, Miss., and Charlotte covering beats including the NFL’s Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints, University of South Carolina athletics and the S.C. General Assembly.
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