What Zion Williamson’s legal issues say about basketball’s future

Pete Thamel
·6 min read

Zion Williamson remains the poster child for attending college. He arrived at Duke with nearly 1 million Twitter followers and left Durham a transcendent star. Zion became a one-name brand by toe-touching campus for a few months, helping him sign a rookie-record $75 million shoe deal with Nike after leaving.

But the Zion experience at Duke is potentially being reframed through a legal tiff that spilled out some compelling public documents on Sunday.

A legal filing in Florida from Williamson’s former marketing representative repeatedly alleges that Williamson’s family courted and received extra benefits for his time at Duke, according to a Request for Admission in Dade County (Florida). This is the third time a legal case has intimated that Williamson or his family broke NCAA rules and attempted to seek money to profit off his fame as an amateur.

What does it all mean? To think there will be depositions, admissions and notices of allegations from all this is naïve. There’s too much cross-interest between the powerful intertwined parties — Duke, Nike, CAA and Williamson. That’s far too many image-conscious organizations with mutual interest to not figure out a way to write a check to make things go away. (Just like USC and Reggie Bush, who resisted the easiest solution for far too long with legal issues from aggrieved parties in his college years.)

If Williamson had come along a few years later, he and his family wouldn’t have had to jump through so many hoops to profit off his Name, Image and Likeness. NCAA legislation being pushed forward in the past month is expected to allow athletes like Williamson to monetize their brand in 2021.

But there’s an interesting lesson in all this for the Pollyannas who’ve been waiting for this NIL moment for years. Just because the black market comes above ground and money can move above board in the amateur ranks doesn’t mean that space still won’t be a mess. More than likely, there will be plenty of cautionary tales to follow. They’ll just look different than this one, as high-stakes decisions will be made earlier. Some will work out. Others won’t. Rest assured, there will be lawsuits like this one, with broken contracts and hard feelings.

NIL is a great step forward for college athletics, and it’s decades overdue. But it won’t come without a lot of unintended consequences, attempted manipulations and the type of chicanery that became institutionalized in the grassroots world.

Duke's Zion Williamson reacts in the locker room after his team's 68-67 loss to Michigan State in the East regional game of the 2019 NCAA tournament. (Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
Duke's Zion Williamson reacts in the locker room after his team's 68-67 loss to Michigan State in the East regional game of the 2019 NCAA tournament. (Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

No one should have been in a better shape than Williamson to position himself for post-collegiate wealth. He attended a blue-blood school with a Hall of Fame coach. He had global fame and international recognition by the time he could make above-board deals. In theory, he should have been surrounded by the best and brightest.

Instead, he signed a five-year deal with Gina Ford of Prime Marketing that sunk him into this mess. Then he sued her to get out of it. She countersued and her company is now asking all kinds of leading questions that intimate that Williamson’s mother and stepfather “received gifts, money and other benefits from persons acting on behalf of Nike” to influence him to attend Duke. (There are 16 questions overall, which seem to have been constructed by a collective fever dream of UNC message board posters.)

This notion of Williamson and his family attempting to profit off his amateur status isn’t particularly shocking. Anyone paying attention to the federal basketball case knew that those Adidas representatives figuring out a six-figure deal for Brian Bowen to attend Louisville weren’t bidding against themselves. (And Bowen was a top-30 player, not a potentially generational one like Zion.)

Williamson, who is in his rookie NBA season in New Orleans, broke his signed marketing agreement with Prime Marketing to go with global superpower CAA. But they haven’t exactly protected him from the fallout from the initial deal.

What’s the reality here? Anyone who thinks Williamson and his family weren’t compensated in some way prior to his career ending at Duke should enjoy their next tea party with the Aquaman, the Easter Bunny and Bigfoot. Three separate court cases with allegations of NCAA rule-breaking has to be some kind of record. Even SMU football from the mid-1980s is impressed.

It started with Kansas assistant Kurtis Townsend being caught on wiretap discussing with an Adidas consultant Williamson’s stepfather’s desire for “cash in the pocket” and “housing for him and his family.” Later, a filing in federal court on behalf of controversial attorney Michael Avenatti included text conversations between Nike officials in February 2017 about being “willing to do … whatever may be needed” for Williamson. That included a price tag of $35,000 “plus.”

It’s possible to both believe that Williamson’s family was well compensated as an amateur and that this filing is Ford taking some educated guesses to give her legal leverage in her case. (Clearly, she’s risking her reputation for future clients, as it wouldn’t be considered good marketing to legally firebomb the family of the country’s most promising young athlete.)

This is a taffy pull where winning will be defined by how much Williamson’s payout to Ford ends up being. There are no winners.

This case is a window into the old world of college athletics, the recruitment of a player who is perhaps the sport’s last transcendent star. But it’s also a cautionary tale for the next Zions, who are all a viral dunk away from endless opportunity. A great deal at 16 could look like a disaster at 19. A long-term deal that offers security to a family when a star is a teenager may end up looking exploitive when they are in their early 20s. Imagine Zion signing a long-term sneaker deal before Duke?

There’s a new generation of Christian Dawkins-esque characters already out hustling relationships with the recruiting class of 2021, looking to get in early by waving money in front of family’s faces.

The grift isn’t going away once the money moves above the table in grassroots basketball. The shady recruitment of global soccer and baseball stars have shown us that it just takes on different forms. If a burgeoning global icon like Zion Williamson can ensnare Duke’s reputation in a lawsuit and have Nike executives sweating bullets, it’s a good reminder that this new world of NIL we’re about to enter is still going to have the same types of old problems. They’ll just start earlier.

RFA to Zion Williamson

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