Should Nike, Duke, Coach K and Zion Williamson be worried about latest legal filings?

·7 min read

The four brands impacted by the legal standoff between Zion Williamson and his former marketing agent are among the heaviest hitters in sports.

Consider the collective heft of these titans: Duke basketball, Mike Krzyzewski, Nike and Zion. Those brands, all of which rely on the veneer of a spotless image, are exposed here to some degree.

So it continues to be fascinating how a marketing agent named Gina Ford continues to leverage those four brands as the dueling lawsuits between Williamson and Ford sort themselves out.

The stakes of the legal tango ratcheted up on Wednesday when a legal filing in North Carolina stated that Williamson was “permanently ineligible” to play at Duke. It got juicier, including a picture of the house that Williamson’s family allegedly rented in North Carolina while he attended Duke. The projected cost to rent and buy the family’s house in South Carolina ($895 per month/$153,000) falls well short of the prices in the temporary home in North Carolina ($4,995 per month/$950,000).

The legal filing also pointed out that three luxury cars – a Mercedes Benz wagon, GMC Yukon and Cadillac Escalade – deserve scrutiny “to determine whether these vehicles impacted Plaintiff’s eligibility to be/remain a ‘student athlete.’” Ford’s legal team is producing enough smoke to impress the actual tobacco producers on Tobacco Road.

The rhetoric increased on Wednesday, as the court filing in the middle district of North Carolina also claimed that testimony from Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski – somewhat amusingly referred to as “Coach K” in the document – was warranted because of his statements about the federal college basketball scandal. (The document referenced the ode to hypocrisy where Coach K referred to the federal scandal as “a blip.”)

What does this all mean? Is there enough evidence to implicate Duke in an NCAA issue? Will Zion and Coach K sit for a deposition? Here are the key questions after the latest development in Williamson’s case.

Duke's Zion Williamson (1) listens to coach Mike Krzyzewski during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Yale in Durham, N.C., Saturday, Dec. 8, 2018. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
Duke's Zion Williamson and coach Mike Krzyzewski teamed up for one memorable 2018-19 season on Tobacco Road. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

1. What is this all about?

To refresh: The legal issues here are fairly simple.

Zion Williamson signed a marketing agreement with Gina Ford of Prime Marketing in April of 2019, a few days after he declared for the NBA draft.

The dueling lawsuits began in June of 2019, as Williamson filed the first one to void the contract after deciding to sign with global power agency CAA. Ford countered by suing for $100 million. (The agreement was to be for five years, and Williamson projects as one of the world’s most marketable athletes.)

The court filings with overt requests for potentially incriminating information and these latest nuggets about the house and cars are potentially part of the discovery if Ford’s suit moves forward, which is common in civil lawsuits.

While each filing reveals a few more crumbs of dirt that certainly has the four mega brands’ attention – Duke, Zion, Coach K and Nike – we’re still likely a long way from anyone giving a deposition about Zion’s recruiting. (That’s where the real impact could come for Duke and Coach K with the NCAA.)

“[Ford is] utilizing the discovery process as a means to force some form of settlement before the deposition and discovery discloses something very problematic,” said Steve Haney, an attorney in Michigan who has worked in basketball for nearly 30 years, including as an NBA agent.  “It’s surprising to me at some point [Zion’s representatives] weren’t a little more forward-thinking to see this coming.”

2. How much money is at stake?

This is the tricky part, as the $100 million figure Ford is seeking is clearly Pollyannaish.

The more dirt that Ford’s lawyers keep dropping in legal filings, the worse that Duke, Zion and Coach K look. But is it bad enough to fork over millions of dollars? Clearly, not yet. Everyone has a price, and the legal maneuverings show that’s the desired result here for Ford.

Perhaps the most interesting part of this suit is that it has gotten this far. The history of basketball includes countless agent squabbles, double deals and tension between athletes and agents/marketers. They rarely surface in court.

The key difference here is that Ford went scorched Earth on the Williamsons and essentially alienated herself from ever getting a high-profile basketball client again. (Her bio includes working with track star Usain Bolt.)

Imagine her walking into a meeting with Nike after legally threatening three of their biggest partners. How much is she seeking? It’s a tricky question, because Zion’s legal claim is that Ford’s company, Prime Sports, wasn’t registered in North Carolina. That means the contract should be voided. If this argument ends up holding water, Ford could get nothing.

So after essentially removing herself from the agent marketing business, the question will be how much will Ford take to go away. So far, she doesn’t appear to like the answers.

3. How will this play out in the courts?

The only thing more consistently slow than the American legal process is the NCAA legal process. While there may be legal filings, don’t expect any real action soon. We’re a year in and no one appears ready to flinch.

In terms of the legal case, we’re still in the early stages. Expect more bluster and leverage plays before any action.

“We’re only about two minutes before halftime before anyone is even going to have to answer [a deposition or in discovery],” said Stu Brown, a veteran attorney of NCAA cases, who is not affiliated with this case. “You have to finish the first half and second and maybe overtime before anyone is even going to answer.”

4. How will this play out with the NCAA?

The NCAA piece is more complicated, as it’s unknown how much spade work the NCAA has done on Williamson while he was at Duke. With Williamson out of school, he and his family are no longer compelled to cooperate with the NCAA. (Which means there’s zero chance they will.)

Sports Illustrated has reported that the NCAA vetted Williamson’s family living arrangement.

(It was an open secret that the Williamson family was living there, as it was a popular discussion on message boards and Twitter. Especially among fans of teams in the NCAA crosshairs from the federal investigation.)

As of now, there doesn’t appear to be enough hard evidence for the NCAA to move on for a viable case. There has been too much smoke around Williamson’s recruitment for anyone to deny with a straight face that Williamson didn’t break NCAA amateurism rules and should have been eligible at Duke. (Wiretap conversations in the Southern District of New York’s case and the documents tied to the Michael Avenatti case both give a peek at the deals being brokered for Zion to attend college.)

The bottom line here is that it’s highly unlikely, without much more information from filings or depositions, that Williamson’s case gets Duke in hot water.

“Even if this information becomes more credible and the enforcement staff digs into it and it’s new information to them,” Brown said. “Although they should be interested and should be and would be politically forced to look into it, there’s no promise of how strenuously they’d look into it.”

If it’s not handed on a silver platter to the NCAA via legal methods, don’t expect anything to happen.

5. What’s a reasonable prediction for an outcome?

The case will get settled before any of the pristine brands get exposed. But there’s been more exposure already than anyone could have imagined. So perhaps we’ll continue to be surprised.

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