Zion Williamson’s lawyers doubt marketing firm’s contract

Sports

FILE – In this Feb. 13, 2020, file photo, New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson grabs a rebound during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Oklahoma City Thunder in New Orleans. The marketing agent who has sued NBA rookie Williamson wants the former Duke star to answer questions about whether he received improper benefits before playing his lone season with the Blue Devils. (AP Photo/Matthew Hinton, File)

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (AP) — Lawyers for New Orleans Pelicans rookie Zion Williamson want a federal judge in North Carolina to rule that a marketing firm suing Williamson for $100 million never had a valid contract with the former Duke star.

Prime Sports Marketing and its president, Gina Ford, sought breach-of-contract damages from Williamson and his current representatives at Creative Artists Agency after the player pulled out of an agreement with Prime Sports before he became the No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 NBA draft.

The motion filed by Williamson attorney John Wester in U.S. District Court in Winston-Salem this week centers on North Carolina’s Uniform Athlete Agent Act. The law is meant to shield amateur athletes from agents trying to take advantage of their lack of experience with acquiring professional representation.

It requires agents to be registered in the state. It also requires contracts to contain a warning that athletes are forfeiting amateur eligibility, as well as language stipulating that athletes have 14 days to cancel the agreement.

Wester argued in a memorandum in support of his motion that Prime Sports’ contract with Williamson contained none of that required language, which is supposed to be “prominent, all-caps, and bold.”

Wester also asserts that Ford, who was Prime Sports’ primary contact with Williams and his family, was not registered in North Carolina.

“These statutes recognize the vulnerability of young student-athletes and attempt to aid their transition to professional sports by preventing manipulative, underhanded behavior from athlete agents who prey on student-athletes’ youth, and the athletes’ and their families’ inexperience in the industry,” Wester wrote.

Ford’s attorneys this month filed documents alleging Williamson “engaged in conduct that rendered … him ineligible to be or remain a student-athlete” before Williamson had met Ford to discuss endorsement deals. In theory, the claim would render arguments about the Uniform Athlete Agent Act moot, although no evidence has been offered yet to back it up.

Wester counters that the fact Williamson was deemed eligible to play for Duke and was “one of the most prominent student-athletes in the country in recent years,” means Williamson met the description of an amateur athlete when he was negotiating with Ford.

“It is undisputed that Mr. Williamson played basketball for Duke during the entire 2018-2019 basketball season,” Wester asserted.

The legal maneuvering between Williamson and Ford has been taking place in two federal jurisdictions.

Williamson sued in North Carolina last June to void the contract. Ford and Prime Sports responded by suing in federal court in Florida for damages related to breach of contract by Williamson and tampering by his CAA agents.

In Florida this month, Ford’s lawyer submitted a list of questions that include asking whether Williamson or anyone on his behalf had sought or accepted “money, benefits, favors or other things of value” to sign with Duke.

The filings — which offer no evidence of wrongdoing by Williamson or his family — sought answers within 30 days to establish facts under oath in the pretrial discovery process.

The questions reference Williamson’s mother and step-father as well as apparel companies Nike — which outfits the Blue Devils team — and Adidas. The questions include whether he received any improper benefits from an agent between January 2014 and his April 2019 announcement that he would go pro.

Duke spokesman Michael Schoenfeld has declined to comment on the filings since the school is not a party to either lawsuit. Schoenfeld also referred to a previous statement that the school has reviewed Williamson’s eligibility and found no concerns.

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