A Florida judge on Tuesday ruled that lawyers representing a marketing agent in a lawsuit against Zion Williamson can proceed with discovery regarding the eligibility of the former Duke star. The decision is the latest step in what is proving to be a contentious case between Williamson and Gina Ford, a Florida-based marketing rep who says the top pick of last year’s NBA Draft reneged on a signed deal that engaged Ford to handle future endorsement deals. Ford is merely seeking financial damages, but the case could have even bigger implications for Duke, as part of her defense is that Williamson received impermissible benefits during his one season with the Blue Devils.
During Monday’s Zoom hearings, the two sides argued the merits of exploring Williamson’s eligibility. Jeffrey Klein, representing Williamson, dismissed Ford’s claim as “fanciful,’’ while Ford’s attorney Willie Gary accused Williamson of trying to evade the truth. “If this complaint was so frivolous and if they had nothing to hide, your honor, why not let this man give a deposition? We’ve adjusted our schedules. We gave them their opportunity to give us dates for it. They gave us dates, and now they want to back out on them.” Gray later added, “They are trying to duck and dodge being put on the stand, raising your right hand and telling the truth.’’
Will there be an appeal? Almost certainly. Miller even alluded to it at the end of the hearing. “If I get an order from a federal judge telling me what to do, I’ll give great weight to that, but otherwise, we’re going to run the court as I see fit subject to the 3rd District telling me what to do,’’ he said. “I sort of consider myself second base. You’ve got to get past the third before anyone gets home — if you ever get there."
Attorneys for NBA rookie Zion Williamson seek to block his former marketing agent’s effort to have the ex-Duke star answer questions about whether he received improper benefits before playing for the Blue Devils. In a Florida court filing last week, Williamson’s attorneys say those questions are “nothing more than a fishing expedition aimed at tarnishing Williamson’s reputation” and designed to “maximize potential embarrassment and media coverage in an attempt to improperly gain settlement leverage.”
Gina Ford’s attorneys had submitted questions this month asking whether the New Orleans Pelicans rookie or anyone on his behalf sought or accepted “money, benefits, favors or things of value” to sign with Duke. Those filings -- offering no evidence of wrongdoing by Williamson or his family -- sought answers within 30 days to establish facts under oath in the pretrial discovery process.
In North Carolina, agents who wish to represent athletes in marketing or contract negotiations are required to register with the state before they make contact with anyone who has amateur status. It is a relatively cheap and easy process. It costs $200 to submit an application, a paltry sum for those who are getting a cut of six- and seven-figure deals. The legal drama between Zion Williamson and Gina Ford, a marketing representative for Prime Sports, has brought this law, which is called the Uniform Athlete Agents Act, into focus.
Earlier this week, lawyers for Williamson asked a federal judge in North Carolina to declare an agreement between the former Duke star and Prime Sports void because Ford was not registered as an agent in the state while she was in contact with Williamson’s camp. Court documents show Ford was texting with Williamson’s mother, Sharonda Sampson, as early as January 2019, while Williamson was involved in ACC play.
Williamson signed an agreement with Prime Sports in April 2019, days after he declared for the NBA draft. Roughly a month later, Williamson parted ways with Prime Sports and signed with the behemoth Creative Artists Agency. Ford is suing the Pelicans’ rookie on the grounds that he breached their contract. "It’s a very straightforward claim that doesn’t depend on a lot of discovery to be established,” said Daniel Wallach, a legal analyst for The Athletic and the founder of a law firm that focuses on sports gambling. "It really doesn’t look at behavior as much as when the behavior took place. Having contact with a student-athlete is absolutely forbidden when he’s engaged in intercollegiate sports unless the agent is registered."
In a motion filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Williamson's attorneys restated their argument that the NBA star's marketing agreement wasn't valid because Ford wasn't a registered agent in North Carolina, and the contract didn't include a warning that was required by a state law designed to protect amateur athletes from unscrupulous agents.
Darren Heitner: Zion Williamson has filed a motion for partial judgment on the pleadings in his federal court litigation against former marketing agents. Focus is on failure to register as an athlete agent & include requisite disclosures under NC's athlete agent law.
Just after declaring for the draft, Williamson signed a contract with Ford, the president of Prime Sports Marketing, to handle his endorsement deals. No one argues that. There is a signed contract, as well as pictures of Ford with Williamson and Krzyzewski during a photoshoot for Slam magazine.
But Williamson later broke that contract and signed with CAA. Ford contacted the agency, asking for mediation or threatening a lawsuit. Instead, Williamson sued Prime Sports and Ford, contending that the contract with Prime Sports was never enforceable because Prime Sports did not follow the guidelines of the North Carolina Uniform Athlete Agent Act, and warn Williamson of potential eligibility issues.
The following week, Ford countersued, filing in Florida and arguing that Williamson breached his contract when he signed with CAA agents. Her lawyers are arguing that he willfully and knowingly signed the document and that the North Carolina Uniform Athlete Agent Act doesn’t apply because Williamson already had declared for the NBA Draft with no intention of returning to Duke.
These rather explosive questions factor in because the lawyers argue that if they can prove Williamson was paid before or during his tenure at Duke, he would be ineligible and thereby no longer a student-athlete. “It doesn’t matter when the contract is entered into. If you’re no longer a student-athlete, the rules of the NCAA no longer apply,’’ Ford’s attorney Larry Strauss said. “The nuance is that this does not just apply to him. Any third party that acted as an agent, his parent or handlers, all of their actions can also affect eligibility.’’ Both parties have sought dismissal of the other’s case, but each has been denied.
Zion Williamson's lawsuit with Prime Sports Marketing's Gina Ford, his former agent, has taken an interesting twist. According to court papers published early Sunday afternoon by Wallach Legal, LLC founder and gaming law and sports betting attorney Daniel Wallach, Ford served Williamson with requests for admission that he received impermissible benefits to attend Duke and wear or use Nike or choose an Adidas-sponsored school.
Among the 11 bullet points from 5-15, the documents posted by Wallach shows a list of items alleging that he received "money, benefits, favors or others things of value" to sign with the Blue Devils for the 2018-19 college basketball season and wear or use the aforementioned brands. The served requests name Williamson and his mother and stepfather, Sharonda Sampson and Lee Anderson, and Ford is trying to make him say "yes or no" under oath regarding whether or not he accepted the impermissible benefits.
March 5, 2021 | 7:03 am EST Update
Darren Wolfson: From some correspondence with somebody close to Collins, that camp views this situation, the idea of Collins playing next to KAT as favorable.
If nothing happens, Randle stands to be a restricted free agent in 2022. “We’ll see when we get to that time,” Randle said. “But right now, I’m really just focused on what we have to do as a team. That’s so far ahead in the future. When that time presents itself I’ll be ready, we’ll talk or whatever, but I’m really just focused on this team, first off getting a win [Thursday] going into All-Star break, getting my body right so I’m healthy, staying on top of what I have to, starting off the second half of the season strong. That’s where my focus is right now.”
Darren Wolfson: The Wolves had trade interest in Gordon last year, February-January of 2020. They talked to Orlando. They’ve been trying to trade for Aaron Gordon for a while. They view him as a really good fit next to Karl-Anthony Towns. So the Wolves have engaged Orlando in numerous talks. In fact, I’ll advance it here by saying I’m told that the Wolves made Orlando a pretty nice offer before Gordon got hurt sometime earlier this calendar year. So they talked to Orlando around draft time. Then at some point after the season started. I’m told they made some sort of offer. I don’t have specifics on what that offer entailed. Clearly, it wasn’t enough to get a deal done.
From the looks of things, you seem more aggressive, you’re embracing the role of being the primary option and you look happy with the Hornets. Is this correct? Hayward: For sure. I’m really enjoying my time in Charlotte, certainly the role’s a little bit different, one that I’m embracing. It’s a season I’m really enjoying.
So let’s discuss the elephant in the room. When did you decide to leave the Celtics and why? Hayward: Not until that day when I decided. There was so much that happened before that, in the bubble, me getting hurt. In the bubble I felt like our team was playing really well, I felt like I was doing well. Then I get hurt, I have to come out of the bubble to rehab, then go back in, not fully healthy, we lose in the playoffs and at the same time I have a baby boy and come back home. The league told us the season probably wasn’t going to start until the end of January, so I have a minor surgery to do and rehab. But then actually we’re going to start right before Christmas. Then you’re scrambling, trying to get ready and healthy, then free agency hits and ultimately you have to decide where to be. It really wasn’t was until the day I decided that I wanted to have a fresh start and try to help this team.