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Duke says it is 'looking into' lawyer Michael Avenatti's claims Nike paid Zion Williamson's mother

Michael Avenatti, a prominent lawyer whom federal prosecutors in New York have accused of attempting to extort Nike, alleged in a tweet Friday night that Zion Williamson’s mother was paid for bogus “consulting services” to get Williamson to Duke. 

Avenatti’s tweet alleged Williamson’s mother, Sharonda Sampson, was paid for the services in “2016/17.” In a subsequent tweet, Avenatti tweeted at the official Duke men’s basketball account, asking Duke’s “close friends at [Nike] to check their Nike Vendor Portal for payments to ‘Sharonda Sampson Consulting.’ Just search 2016 to the present. Appreciate it.”

Kevin White, Duke’s director of athletics, wrote that the University is investigating the allegation like it would any compliance matter. 

“We are aware of the allegation and, as we would with any compliance matter, are looking into it. Duke is fully committed to compliance with all NCAA rules and regulations,” White wrote in a statement to The Chronicle. “Every student athlete at Duke is reviewed to ensure their eligibility. With regard to men’s basketball: all recruits and their families are thoroughly vetted by Duke in collaboration with the NCAA through the Eligibility Center’s amateurism certification process.” 

The Chronicle has left a voicemail and sent a text message to a number listed for Sampson, and has reached out over Facebook to a profile appearing to be Sampson in a message for comment, but did not receive a response in time for publication. 

Nike didn’t address specifics in a statement provided to Yahoo! Sports. 

“Nike firmly believes in ethical and fair play, both in business and sports and won’t be commenting further beyond our statement,” the statement read

Williamson is the presumptive No. 1 overall pick in this year’s NBA draft after enjoying a monster freshman season for Duke. After averaging nearly 23 points and nine rebounds per game, the 6-foot-7, 285 pound forward was nearly unanimously named the Associated Press Player of the Year Friday. 

Nike has sponsored Duke Athletics since 1992 and recently signed an extension through 2027. Head coach Mike Krzyzewski, who has been a “Nike Coach” since the 1993-94 season, has a building on Nike's campus named after him. 

Friday night’s tweet wasn’t the first time Avenatti mentioned Duke in the context of recruiting. On March 27, he tweeted "And Duke…" during a stream of tweets about his allegations of recruiting impropriety. 

"There's nothing there,” Krzyzewski told Yahoo Sports when asked about the March 27 tweet. 

Avenatti, who rose to prominence while serving as porn star Stormy Daniels’ attorney in her lawsuits filed against President Donald Trump, was also recently charged in a separate California bank and wire fraud case. He faces up to more than 50 years in prison for the charges. 

“I’m still waiting for [Nike] to call me a liar and state they have not been bribing players for years to go to ‘Nike’ colleges in violation of countless federal criminal statutes,” Avenatti tweeted Saturday morning. 

Nike responded in a statement to The Oregonian Saturday night, declining to answer specific questions. 

“Nike will not respond to the allegations of an individual facing federal charges of fraud and extortion and aid in his disgraceful attempts to distract from the athletes on the court at the height of the tournament," the company wrote. "Nike will continue its cooperation with the government’s investigation into grassroots basketball and the related extortion case.”

In the New York federal case, prosecutors alleged Avenatti threatened to give Nike bad publicity before an earnings call and the beginning of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament in March, according to the New York Times.

Avenatti allegedly told Nike that he would release evidence Nike funneled money to college basketball recruits—such payments would be in violation of NCAA rules—unless he was paid $22.5 million.

“Avenatti used illegal and extortionate threats for the purpose of obtaining millions of dollars in payments from a public company,” Geoffrey S. Berman, the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York, told the New York Times. “Calling this anticipated payout a retainer or a settlement doesn’t change what it was—a shakedown. When lawyers use their law licenses as weapons, as a guise to extort payments for themselves, they are no longer acting as attorneys.”

Michael Model contributed reporting. 

This story was updated Saturday at 7:25 p.m. to include Nike's statement to The Oregonian. 

Ben Leonard profile
Ben Leonard

Managing Editor 2018-19, 2019-2020 Features & Investigations Editor 

A member of the class of 2020 hailing from San Mateo, Calif., Ben is The Chronicle's Towerview Editor and Investigations Editor. Outside of the Chronicle, he is a public policy major working towards a journalism certificate, has interned at the Tampa Bay Times and NBC News and frequents Pitchforks. 


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