This column was originally published on May 11th of 2020.
The public intrigue into Zion Williamson’s current lawsuit and legal battle has nothing to do with Zion Williamson himself and everything to do with smearing the glossy veneer of the Duke basketball program.
That’s the truth.
The numbers involved in this litigation — reportedly up to $200 million is at stake — will certainly raise some eyebrows, but contract disputes are rarely interesting for anyone that isn’t in law school. That’s what this is. Zion signed a contract with Gina Ford and Prime Sports Marketing on April 20, 2019, five days after he declared for the NBA draft. Less than two months later, he backed out of that deal to sign with CAA, the most powerful agency in the business that will also be representing his basketball interests. Ford is suing Williamson for breach of contract.
The outcome of this civil case is going to hinge on a law in the state of North Carolina known as UAAA — the Uniform Athlete Agent Act — that requires a contract to make it clear to a student-athlete that by signing with an agent, they forfeit their remaining eligibility. This marketing contract did not have that language in it, and Williamson’s lawyers will argue that this made the contract itself invalid.
(And no, I don’t, for a second, think that Zion was ever returning to Duke. Neither does Ford, or anyone with any common sense. It’s why I wrote this “column” last May, when the rumors of Zion returning to school started rolling through the basketball world. That said, if I was a cynic, I would take a close look at that timeline. Rumors of Zion returning to school just happened to start circulating right around the time that he was trying to find a way out of a marketing contract to sign with a bigger agency? Hmm. Interesting. But I’m not a cynic, so I certainly won’t suggest that it was nothing other than a well-orchestrated PR ploy knowing that this would inevitably end up in the court system one day. Wouldn’t dream of insinuating anything like it.)
Which brings us to Mother’s Day.
That’s when Daniel Wallach of The Athletic first published snippets of the latest Zion Williamson lawsuit that was filed by Ford and her attorneys. Among them were requests for admission that Zion and his family received all kinds of money, benefits and gifts to play at Duke and to induce him to wear Nike and Adidas at different points during his high school career. The legal ploy is simple, really: If Zion or his parents are forced, under oath, to admit that they accepted illegal benefits at any point during his recruitment or while on the roster at Duke, it would mean that he was retroactively ineligible. If he was actually ineligible during his one season in Durham, then the UAAA wouldn’t be relevant. The contract, which, according to Ford’s lawsuit, could only be terminated with cause, would stand and Zion would be on the hook for a lot of money.
At this point, it does not appear that there is much evidence proving that Zion accepted illegal benefits. When asked by Dana O’Neil of The Athletic if they have any proof of wrongdoing, Ford’s attorney said, “We have ideas, opinions and some leads of our own. We are looking for information to support our case. This is what we want to know.” Requests for admission are, essentially, fact-finding missions during discovery in civil cases. Put another way, at this point, these requests are nothing more than proof that Ford’s lawyers have heard the same rumors and read the same court docs that people in basketball circles and on college basketball message boards have.
But no one actually cares about the legalese here, because if they did, they’d realize that Zion is under no obligation to answer, and even if he is somehow forced to, nothing will come of this for a long, long time.
The people that care this case care about catching Coach K in a lie. They care about proving that the holier-than-thou way that Duke carries itself is fraudulent. They care about finding a way to get something — anything — to stick to the program that recruits better than anyone else in an era where recruiting is the Wild, Wild West.
Do you remember when Lance Thomas dropped $30,000 in cash as a down payment for $67,800 in jewelry a year before Thomas and Duke won the 2010 national title? Nothing came of it. Remember when Corey Maggette admitted to receiving payments from Myron Piggie before becoming a member of the team that made it to the 1999 national title game? Nothing came of that, either. Nothing happened when Wendell Carter’s name popped up on expense reports submitted by Christian Dawkins. Nothing happened when Michael Avenatti alleged that Nike paid Marvin Bagley’s family.
All told, there are 13 high-major programs that are dealing with the fallout from the FBI’s investigation into college basketball: Alabama, Arizona, Auburn, Creighton, Kansas, Louisville, LSU, Memphis, N.C. State, Oklahoma State, South Carolina, TCU and USC.
Duke, despite a cloud of smoke surrounding Zion that would make Seth Rogen envious, has been hit with … nada.
The public is looking for their pound of flesh, and nothing would satiate that bloodlust quite like an admission from Zion Williamson in this lawsuit that he was paid to go to Duke.