A saga of dueling lawsuits between Zion Williamson and his former marketing agency that could have implications for Duke's basketball program took another twist on Thursday. Prime Sports Marketing tried to submit new evidence in a North Carolina civil case claiming Williamson's family received $400,000 for granting Williamson's marketing rights to another agency just as his freshman season at Duke began.
The allegations would cast doubt on Williamson's legal status as an amateur during his time at Duke and could have ramifications for the Duke program if proven true.
Daniel Wallach, a legal analyst for The Athletic, first reported the developments, which sparked a firm rebuttal from Williamson's legal team. In a statement released to media outlets, his attorneys referred to the accusations as "a desperate and irresponsible attempt to smear Mr. Williamson at the very time he has the opportunity to live his dream of playing professional basketball."
At stake is a debate over whether Williamson was legally an amateur athlete when he signed a contract with Prime Sports Marketing after he declared for the 2019 NBA Draft.
Prime Sports Marketing is suing Williamson for $100 million in Florida, claiming it is owed compensation for endorsement deals it established for Williamson. But in the North Carolina countersuit, Williamson is alleging that he was an amateur athlete during his relationship with Prime Sports Marketing. Under North Carolina law, his status as an amateur would nullify his agreement with Prime Sports Marketing.
The latest conflict in the lawsuits set off a social media debate over the legitimacy of documents brought forth by Prime Sports Marketing that were allegedly used by Williamson to establish a contract with another agency while he was at Duke. Prime Sports Marketing is alleging that the establishment of that relationship with another agency would have nullified his status as an amateur and would therefore make their contract with Williamson legally enforceable.
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 Wallach, Williamson's 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 a "request for admissions" about Williamson's time at Duke that seeks to implicate the Duke program in breaking NCAA rules to bring Williamson into the Blue Devils program.
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 be 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 a court 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 for him to play for the Blue Devils.
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."