A judge in Florida denied a motion on Tuesday from Zion Williamson and his legal team to stay discovery into whether he was eligible to play at Duke in 2018-19 under NCAA rules, the latest twist in an increasingly interesting legal battle that has cast a pall over the star basketball player's time at Duke.
The ruling requires that Williamson, the former Duke star and current Pelicans rookie, must answer questions under oath related to his eligibility and any improper benefits he or his family may have received. His eligibility has come under scrutiny after Gina Ford and Prime Sports Marketing, his former agency, filed suit against him seeking $100 million for breach of contract. Ford and Prime Sports also filed a, asking Williamson to admit that his mother and stepfather "demanded and received gifts, money and/or other benefits from persons acting on behalf of Duke University (directly and/or indirectly) to influence you to attend Duke University to play basketball."
Williamson's attorneys are expected to file an appeal on the ruling, ESPN reports.
Earllier, Williamson requested a protective order alleging Prime Sports Marketing is attempting to force Williamson "to engage in burdensome and irrelevant party discovery in this Court aimed at embarrassing him, his family, his former coaches, and his former school."
The insinuation is that Williamson was induced to play at Duke in a way that would clearly violate NCAA rules upped the intensity of a complicated legal battle that appears far from over. Here is what we know about the dispute.
Why did Zion split with Prime Sports Marketing?
Days after declaring for the 2019 NBA Draft following his freshman season at Duke, Williamson signed with Prime Sports Marketing. But the partnership lasted only a few weeks. The following month, Williamson signed with Creative Artists Agency. CAA is a well-known agency representing several top NBA players as compared to Prime Sports Marketing, which does not represent any NBA players, according to the HoopsHype database of NBA agencies.
According to The Athletic's legal analyst Daniel Wallach, Williamson team filed a federal lawsuit relying on a North Carolina law meant to protect student-athletes from solicitation from agents not certified by the state. The lawsuit seeks to nullify his agreement with Prime Sports Marketing.
Why did Prime Sports Marketing file suit against Zion?
Prime Sports struck back in a separate state lawsuit seeking compensation for endorsement deals that it claimed to have lined up for Williamson. The suit, filed in Florida, is the one that has produced the "request for admissions" about Williamson's time at Duke.
Why does Zion's status at Duke matter?
The North Carolina law is meant to protect student-athletes. So by accusing Williamson and his family of accepting impermissible benefits, Prime Sports Marketing appears to be attempting to cast doubt on whether he was truly an amateur and whether the North Carolina law should apply anyway since their agreement started after he declared for the draft. But, as Wallach explained, diving into Williamson's months at Duke could a double-edged sword for Prime Sports Marketing if it's proven that the company developed a business relationship with his family as an uncertified agent before he declared for the draft.
What is Zion's legal position?
In last week's filing, Williamson's legal team argued that the the resolution of the North Carolina case could "partially or completely obviate" the need for the information Prime Sports Marketing is seeking as part of the discovery process in the Florida case.
Additionally, Williamson's lawyers argued that Prime Sports Marketing's discovery requests are "nothing more than a fishing expedition aimed at tarnishing Williamson's reputation."
Why do the lawsuits matter to college basketball?
While many believe Prime Sports Marketing is simply angling for a settlement after losing Williamson to a more-established agency, Duke's basketball program could be caught in the crosshairs if the battle ends in a trial. If the legitimacy of Williamson's amateurism became a key point of contention in a courtroom, it's feasible that witnesses from the Duke basketball program could be placed under oath and questioned about the allegations that Williamson and his family received inducements.
What is Duke's legal stance?
Prime Sports Marketing's request for admissions from Williamson are not the first instance of an accusation that Duke broke NCAA rules with Williamson.
Michael Avenatti previously alleged that Nike paid Williamson, ostensibly steering him to Duke, which is a Nike-sponsored program. Avenatti has since been found guilty of attempting to extort Nike.
For its part, Duke spokesman Michael Schoenfeld said in a September statement to the Durham Herald-Sun that an outside investigation was conducted once the school was alerted to potential eligibility issues with Williamson.
"As soon as Duke was made aware of any allegation that might have affected Zion Williamson's eligibility, we conducted a thorough and objective investigation which was directed by individuals outside the athletics department," Schoenfeld wrote. "We found no evidence to support any allegation. Zion thrived as both a student and an athlete at Duke, and always conducted himself with integrity and purpose."