Call it the shoe blowout heard round the world.
Early in the February Duke versus North Carolina basketball game, Duke star Zion Williamson made an aggressive drive that came to a sudden stop when the Nike tennis shoe on his right foot blew out.
Williamson crashed to the floor with a knee sprain, and his night was over. But the speculation about the damage to Nike’s brand — and its association with someone later revealed to be its business partner — had just begun.
“Wouldn’t have happened in the Pumas,” rival shoe company Puma later tweeted.
Five months later in July, fully healed and taken as the first pick in the NBA draft, Williamson signed a 10-year, $75 million shoe contract with Nike.
Those were big stories in the sports world during the first seven months of 2019.
But another big story involving Nike and a whole lot of other college stars took place in March, when high-profile California lawyer Michael Avenatti was arrested and charged with trying to extort the shoe company. He allegedly threatened that he would make public unflattering information about Nike, including the company’s multiple payments to athletes’ families, if it didn’t meet his financial demands.
Claiming that he has been charged with extortion merely for representing the interests of a client and Nike associate — basketball coach Gary Franklin Sr. — Avenatti recently filed a lengthy motion to dismiss the indictment against him.
In doing so, he revealed cash payments to family members and “handlers” of prominent players that were made for the purpose of steering high school stars to Nike-sponsored college basketball programs.
“Langford — 20 Zion — 35 plus [Unnamed minor player] — 15” states a text message between Nike associates.
According to Avenatti's motion, “Langford” refers to Romeo Langford, a first-round pick in the draft who is currently with the Boston Celtics, while “Zion” refers to Williamson, currently with the New Orleans Pelicans after being taken first overall.
Langford played one year at Indiana, while Williamson played a single year at Duke.
Other Nike payments, made in 2016 through Avenatti client Franklin, included $30,000 to the handler of DeAndre Ayton, who played at Arizona; $15,000 to the handler of Brandon McCoy, who played at UNLV; $10,000 to Ayton’s mother and unspecified “travel expenses” for Ayton’s family.”
In 2017, Franklin paid $42,028 to the handler of Bol Bol, who played at Oregon.
Avenatti alleges that thanks to Franklin, he had a lot more damaging information about how Nike pursues its shoe business by attaching itself financially to young stars, steering them to college programs it sponsors and then signing them to endorsement contracts once they go pro.
“Nike executives directed Coach Franklin (who ran his own basketball program) to submit false invoices to Nike to disguise the payments as travel expenses and sponsorship for (charitable sports programs,)” the motion states.
The extortion case against Avenatti is built on the allegation that he demanded $1.5 million for Franklin and then up to $25 million from Nike for himself and another lawyer to conduct an internal investigation of Nike.
Was he representing a client? Or was he using his status as a lawyer to compel payments from Nike in exchange for Avenatti’s agreement not to go public?
Indeed, Avenatti was scheduled to hold a press conference regarding the Nike issue when he was arrested for trying to extort Nike.
Nike, obviously, felt it was being shaken down because it went to the FBI after Avenatti and his partner, Los Angeles lawyer Mark Geragos, an unindicted alleged co-conspirator, made their financial demands.
Some of the exchanges between the two sides were captured on video by FBI investigators.
Presumably at the suggestion of the FBI, Nike representatives asked Avenatti what it would cost them “to resolve the matter without Nike retaining (Avenatti and Geragos) to conduct the internal investigation.”
“Mr. Avenatti, after consulting with Mr. Geragos, proposed a settlement amount of $22.5 million,” the motion states, noting that Franklin would have to approve.
This criminal case against Avenatti is going to be resolved on the narrow question of what constitutes legitimate legal representation and what crosses the line into illegality.
It’s just one of a series of criminal cases involving Avenatti that allege gross legal improprieties.
In the legal world, it’s small potatoes. But in the world of major college basketball, the alleged Nike extortion case raises questions about how big-time programs get star recruits and what, in anything, the NCAA can or will do about it.