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Nike execs texted about paying Zion Williamson more than $35,000, Avenatti alleges

Zion Williamson walks on the court at a game against North Carolina in March 2019.
Zion Williamson walks on the court at a game against North Carolina in March 2019.

Embattled attorney Michael Avenatti, who is facing charges that he extorted Nike, claims he has evidence of 2017 texts from a Nike official saying the company should pay former Duke basketball star Zion Williamson more than $35,000, according to a new court filing. 

In a filing Wednesday, Avenatti’s legal team said Nike’s then-recruiting coordinator John Stovall discussed in 2017 via text about paying Williamson—drafted first overall in June by the NBA’s New Orleans Pelicans—“35 plus,” or presumably $35,000, according to a filing in a motion to dismiss the federal government’s case against him. 

Avenatti wrote in a tweet to The Chronicle Wednesday night that the payments discussed were "to attend Duke" and that he was "paid" to attend Duke, as he has previously alleged. 

Carlton Debose, then-director of Nike’s Elite Youth Basketball League, agreed in response to Stovall, saying he was willing to pay Williamson and two others a combined $70,000 in a text message thread with Debose and Jamal James, then-manager of Nike EYB. 

Stovall told the two that they had “not presented our new offer” to Williamson and said it was not smart “to put it in print,” according to the Wednesday filing in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. 

"As we have stated previously, all Duke student-athletes are subject to a thorough review to ensure their eligibility," wrote Jon Jackson, deputy director of athletics, in a statement to The Chronicle. "Beyond that, we have no further comment on this matter."

Avenatti, who made a name for himself as porn star Stormy Daniels's attorney in cases against President Donald Trump, posted a tweet Wednesday night about the Duke-Zion-Nike situation. 

"Nike will not respond to the allegations of an individual facing federal charges of fraud and extortion," Nike wrote in a statement to The Chronicle. "Nike will continue its cooperation with the government's investigation into grassroots basketball and the related extortion case."

In one case out of a bevy of legal entanglements Avenatti is facing, federal prosecutors have accused him of trying to extort Nike for millions in return for evidence he claimed to have of recruiting misconduct. He has pleaded not guilty. He is also facing wire fraud charges in a different case and defrauding Daniels of $300,000 in another. 

In April, Avenatti alleged in a tweet that Williamson's mother, Sharonda Sampson, was paid for bogus "consulting services" to get Williamson to Duke in "2016/17." Williamson committed to Duke in January 2018. 

Kevin White, Duke's director of athletics, told The Chronicle in April that it was investigating the claim like any other compliance matter. Sampson did not respond to multiple requests for comment at the time. 

“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.”

Nike did not directly address the allegations at the time in a statement 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 said

Duke has been sponsored by Nike since 1992 and is under contract with Nike until 2027. Duke men’s basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski has a building named after him on Nike’s campus. 

In March, Avenatti tweeted “And Duke…” during a barrage of tweets alleging recruiting impropriety in college basketball. 

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

Williamson, a 6-foot-7, 285 pound forward, averaged almost 23 points and nine rebounds per game in his one college season and was named the Naismith Men's College Player of the Year.

Jake Satisky contributed reporting. 

This story was updated at 10:50 p.m. Wednesday to reflect Avenatti's tweets to The Chronicle, after 12:00 a.m. Thursday to include Nike's statement and at 9:50 a.m. Thursday to include Jackson's statement. 

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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