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Florida-based agent Gina Ford thought she’d bagged a career-changing client when Zion Williamson signed a contract with her marketing firm in April 2019.
On Wednesday, a federal court judge in Greensboro ruled the contract, which spawned two lawsuits, is null and void because Ford violated North Carolina’s athlete-agent laws.
Issuing her final ruling in Williamson’s lawsuit against Ford and her Prime Sports Marketing agency, Judge Loretta Biggs said none of the allegations Ford’s legal team filed claiming Williamson violated his NCAA eligibility at Duke mattered in this case.
The North Carolina Uniform Athlete-Agent Act (UAAA) stipulates that Ford needed to be registered with the state. She was not.
The contract needed to include boilerplate language stating that any athlete signing the deal was forfeiting NCAA eligibility. It did not.
So, when Williamson decided six weeks after signing the contract that he wanted to end his business relationship with Prime Sports Marketing to sign with another agency, he doesn’t owe the $100 million penalty to Ford for breaking the contract.
“The question the court had to determine in interpreting the applicability of the UAAA was not whether plaintiff (Williamson) could have conceivably been found permanently ineligible by the overseeing collegiate association or should have been found permanently ineligible, but rather whether defendants (Ford, Prime Sports Marketing) had sufficiently alleged that he was permanently ineligible,” Biggs wrote in her final opinion. “The court concluded that defendants failed to do so.”
Williamson signed with Ford a few days after he announced he was leaving Duke following his freshman year to enter the NBA Draft. The 6-7 Williamson was named the 2019 ACC Player of the Year and a first-team All-American after leading Duke to the ACC championship and helping the Blue Devils reach the NCAA tournament’s final eight.
Upon declaring for the draft, Williamson was projected to be the No. 1 overall pick. That projection proved accurate when the New Orleans Pelicans selected Williamson with the top pick on June 20, 2019.
Between turning pro in April and the draft, Williamson first signed the marketing contract with Ford, who began courting him during his lone season at Duke.
But by late May, Williamson had decided he wanted Creative Artists Agency to handle his marketing and contract negotiations. He informed Ford he was breaking the contract, and he signed with CAA.
Ford immediately demanded he pay the $100 million penalty included in the contract. Williamson filed suit against her in the U.S. District Court for North Carolina’s Middle District, saying she had violated N.C. law and the contract was void.
She countersued him in a Miami court.
As both lawsuits worked their way through the federal and Florida state courts, Ford’s attorneys filed documents claiming Williamson had violated his college eligibility before and during his Duke career because his parents received impermissible benefits in the form of cash and housing.
Prior to Williamson’s enrollment at Duke in 2018, the NCAA Clearinghouse, working in conjunction with Duke athletics, conducted a deep dive into the family’s finances. They declared him eligible under the NCAA’s amateurism and academic rules.
In light of the allegations Williamson should have been found ineligible, Duke took a second look at Williamson’s amateurism status even after he’d left school for the NBA. That examination, overseen by the university administration and not solely by the athletic department, found no issues with his eligibility.
Last Jan. 20, Biggs issued an initial opinion that the contract was void. Ford’s attorneys filed motions to have that opinion reconsidered. But Biggs said on Wednesday Ford’s attorneys had not presented any evidence that would change her mind.
The lawsuit Ford and Prime Sports Marketing filed against Williamson and CAA remains active in a Miami court. But the judge ruled Williamson should be dropped from that legal action earlier this year.