Michael Avenatti Motion Alleges Nike Approved Payments to Zion, Romeo Langford

A motion filed on behalf of Michael Avenatti alleges payments to amateur basketball players.
Author:
Publish date:

A motion filed in federal court on Wednesday on behalf of lawyer Michael Avenatti alleges that a Nike employee approved payments to Zion Williamson and Romeo Langford in 2017 when they were still in high school.

The document alleges a Nike executives' willingness to pay $35,000 to Williamson and $20,000 to Langford. There is no evidence that the payments were made or presented to either player or their families.

Williamson played for Duke, a Nike-sponsored school, last year before being selected by the Pelicans as the top overall pick in the 2019 NBA draft. He recently signed a shoe deal with Nike's Jordan Brand. Langford, an Indiana native, played for the Adidas-sponsored Hoosiers last season. The Celtics drafted him this summer with the No. 14 pick.

Nike released a statement in response to the allegations.

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

In March, Avenatti was arrested and charged by federal prosecutors in New York with attempting to extort Nike for up to $25 million and threatening to expose the company's payments to players in its Elite Youth Basketball League. Avenatti has pleaded not guilty. His lawyers asked a federal judge on Wednesday to dismiss the charges on grounds of vindictive and selective prosecution.

Allegations in the motion to dismiss include Nike EYBL manager Jamal James texted EYBL director Carlton DeBose and Nike recruiting coordinator John Stovall in February 2017, asking if they would be "willing to do ... whatever may be needed for Zion/Romeo situations as well as the money we're now doing for the [minor] kid in Michigan."

According to the motion, Stovall responded:

• Langford – 20

• Zion – 35 plus

• [minor] – 15

Also in the motion:

• "DeBose responded that he was willing to pay Langford, Zion and [minor] the $70,000 and that they should 'stay aggressive' while he got 'creative' with the budget."

• "Stovall informed James and DeBose that they still had 'not presented our new offer' to Zion Williamson but agreed that it was not a good idea 'to put it in print...'"

• "An EYBL coach expressed concern to Nike executives about the fact that players and family members were getting paid and that he couldn't 'see how this ends well for NIKE or the EYBL. Some of us will be deemed guilty by association [and] others will be found guilty of failure to supervise.'"

• "DeBose told Nico Harrison, Nike's Vice President of North America Basketball Operations, that he [DeBose] was 'willing to bet that 38 of 40 teams in the EYBL had to pay a moderate to considerable ransom to families just to play in the EYBL. Of these approximate 38 teams, these arrangements are being viewed as a contract by the families and players.'"

• "Rachel Baker, a Nike executive who led 'Event Strategy' for the EYBL, expressed concern to a colleague about carrying large amounts of cash through airport security and indicated that she would lie and 'just say I just sold my car' if she got stopped."

• "DeBose acknowledged in an exchange of text messages with an assistant coach at the University of Kentucky that Nike was funneling payments to high school players through at least ten different EYBL coaches."

The motion includes mentions of text messages, emails and documents that are not attached to it.

According to the complaint, Avenatti threatened to hold a news conference in the spring to announce misconduct allegations against Nike employees. The lawyer represented Gary Franklin, a former coach of the EYBL's California Supreme. Franklin's former players include Oregon's Bol Bol and Deandre Ayton, who previously played at Arizona before going to the Phoenix Suns.

The motion alleges DeBose pressured Franklin to make payments to the families or handlers of amateur players, including $30,000 to Ayton's handler, Mel McDonald. It also alleges payments for $10,000 in cash to Ayton's mother and travel expenses for his family, $15,000 to former UNLV player Brandon McCoy's handler Shaun Manning and over $42,000 to McDonald when he was working with Bol Bol.

"Nike executives directed Coach Franklin to submit false invoices to Nike to disguise the payments as travel expenses and sponsorships for 501(c)(3) organizations…Coach Franklin was forced out by Nike executives when he no longer felt comfortable going along with their scheme," the motion said.

Franklin retained Avenatti in March 2019. According to prosecutors, part of Avenatti's dismissal argument is not that he was trying to extort Nike but offering to conduct an internal investigation into the EYBL.