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The federal judge’s decision to throw out Brian Bowen’s lawsuit against adidas on Wednesday morning doesn’t mean Zion Williamson’s legal issues, or the questions about his eligibility during his Duke career, are over.
Judge Joe Anderson, in a filing in the U.S. District Court for South Carolina in Columbia, ruled Bowen’s claims about adidas’ under-the-table payments to amateur athletes didn’t meet the threshold needed for him to claim triple the damages under the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act.
As part of the case, Bowen’s attorneys presented evidence, including comments under oath from former and current adidas employees, about schemes to funnel money to top players. Included in that evidence were bank statements showing payments from adidas to Williamson’s parents in 2016 and 2017, prior to Williamson’s lone season at Duke in the 2018-19 season.
Bowen was a Louisville recruit whose father received a $100,000 payment to steer him to Louisville, an adidas-sponsored school. He transferred to South Carolina without having played for the Cardinals and turned professional when the NCAA refused to rule him eligible to play college basketball.
While Bowen’s case is over and still subject to an appeal, the evidence presented is part of the legal battle between Williamson and his former marketing agent, Gina Ford. In addition, the NCAA could use the evidence presented in the Bowen case if it decided to open an investigation into whether Williamson violated NCAA amateurism rules while playing for Duke.
Back in 2018, when Williamson enrolled at Duke, the NCAA and Duke conducted an enhanced look at the family’s finances to ensure he was eligible to play college basketball. The NCAA Clearinghouse ruled in September 2018 that Williamson had met both academic and amateurism standards. He played one season at Duke, winning ACC and national player of the year awards while helping Duke go 32-6 to win the ACC championship and reach the NCAA tournament’s Elite Eight.
In April 2019, Williamson declared for the NBA Draft and signed a marketing contract with Prime Sports Marketing and its employee, Gina Ford.
When Williamson changed his mind the following month to sign with Creative Artists Agency (CAA) for marketing and contract representation, Ford claimed he owed her and Prime Sports $100 million for breaking their contract.
Williamson sued Prime Sports and Ford in a Greensboro federal court, claiming the contract was void because Ford violated numerous aspects of North Carolina’s Uniform Athlete-Agent Act, including not being registered to work as an agent in the state.
Federal Judge Loretta Biggs sided with Williamson earlier this year, declaring the contract void.
Still, that lawsuit remains alive as Ford’s attorneys argued all along that Williamson wasn’t subject to protection under NC’s athlete-agent statutes because he should have been ruled ineligible to play college athletics.
The evidence filed in the Bowen case regarding payments to Williamson’s family was entered into Williamson’s case in the Greensboro court May 11.
On Wednesday, U.S. Magistrate Judge Joe L. Webster filed an order implementing a confidentiality order in that case to shield some of the information uncovered through discovery from the public, including the news media. Attorneys on both sides requested the protective order in a court filing on Monday.
Ford and Miami-based Prime Sports Marketing also sued Williamson in Florida state court, seeking damages for his move to break the marketing contract. That case is pending with a Florida judge ruling the federal case in Greensboro should be resolved first.
Williamson’s mother, Sharonda Anderson, and his step-father, Lee Anderson, operated an adidas-backed team, the S.C. Supreme, that played on the adidas Gauntlet summer league tour. Zion Williamson played for that team prior to his Duke career.
NCAA rules allow companies, such as adidas, Nike and Under Armor, to compensate the families of recruits for running summer-league teams for their expenses and to provide them shoes and apparel. Such payments do not render the athletes ineligible to play college athletics.
Some of the payments to Willamson’s family referenced in the Bowen case were from adidas executive Chris Rivers’ Oregon company to Williamson’s parents, including payments to the family’s Ashley Furniture Homestores credit account.
Also included were bank statements showing a series of wire transfers from Rivers’ company, In Your Eye Sports, into Anderson’s joint account. The payments listed in the bank documents were for $1,000 on Dec. 21, 2016, $500 on Jan. 30, 2017, $2,500 on Feb. 24, 2017, and $1,000 on March 22, 2017.
A deposition filed in the case included testimony from former Adidas consultant Dan Cutler, who said he bought plane tickets for Williamson and his family to attend adidas events. Cutler also testified to buying plane tickets for former Duke player Frank Jackson in 2016 during his freshman season with the Blue Devils.
A letter filed with the court in the Bowen case included adidas attorney William Taft’s disclosure that the company “is aware of the following documents suggesting that certain fund transfers to Mr. Williamson or his family may have occurred.”
Taft in the letter detailed nine payments that totaled $5,474, starting with a $404 payment Nov. 14, 2016, and ending with an $800 payment Sept. 12, 2017. The largest payment was $1,107 on Feb. 14, 2017.
Taft also wrote, “Rivers may have transferred $3,000 per month to the Williamson family for an unspecified period of time” and “Rivers may have transferred $1,000 to the Williamson family.”
“Adidas does not know the specific purpose of these transfers,” Taft wrote.
Throughout Williamson’s legal battles as claims and evidence of possible NCAA violations surfaced, Duke officials have steadfastly stood by their stance that their and the NCAA’s look into the family’s financial situation found no evidence of rules violations.
“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,” Duke spokesman Michael Schoenfeld wrote in a Sept. 6, 2019, email to the News & Observer. “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.”
Avenatti was subsequently found guilty on three federal charges for his attempt to extort $25 million from Nike.