Monday Superlatives

The new Zion Williamson scandal is the NCAA's nightmare

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Patrick Smith

Ohhhhh, this is going to be good.

The short version of this emerging story is that Zion Williamson tried to get out of a five-year contract with his marketing agent Gina Ford, president of an organization called Prime Sports, because he was seemingly poached by the agency giant Creative Artists Agency (CAA) before his career really began. If Zion thought Prime Sports would go down without a fight, hoooo boy was he wrong. Ford sued him and CAA last summer, seeking $100 million in damages for breach of contract and a slew of other offenses, at which point this story seemed like an inside-baseball business dispute that had nothing to do with the NCAA.

But my friends, things just got juicy. A new filing by Ford and Prime Sports is asking Zion to "admit" to the following:

— Zion's mother and stepfather got money from people acting on behalf of Duke, and Nike, to attend Duke.

— They demanded the same from Adidas.

— An actual NCAA-certified agent gave the benefits on multiple occasions between 2014 and 2019.

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In another recent filing, Ford and Prime sports also asked Williamson to give up his and his parents' addresses while he attended Duke, which is a little vague at the moment but certainly points in the direction of more seedy revelations.

Now, to some extent, we already knew this. As Mark Schlabach points out at ESPN, there were already recordings from Adidas representatives discussing how Zion's stepfather asked for jobs, money, and housing from the company in order to sway Zion toward Kansas. And we also know that Nike representatives openly texted about paying him $35,000 to play in their summer leagues (and to "cripple Adidas") when he was a junior in high school. There's no proof he got those payments, or knew about the proposal, and Zion played at a bunch of camps, but uhh...you can either be willfully ignorant, or you can understand what's happening. In any case, something swayed Zion to sign with a Nike school, Duke, and then to go with Nike officially once he turned pro.

Hilariously, a lot of this came out because Michael Avenatti, Stormy Daniels' lawyer, got caught trying to pull off a shakedown against Nike, threatening to expose their secrets. In the ensuing court battle, "expose them" is exactly what he did...before being found guilty of extortion.

The bottom line is, there is simply no way to succeed under the idiotic NCAA system of indentured servitude without paying players. The logic is simple: As of 2018, this is a billion-dollar industry, and profits depend on success, and success depends on having the best players in the revenue-generating sports, football and basketball. Since you can't pay those players the normal way, due to the NCAA's use of amateurism, you have to compete for them somehow, and you know what the best way to lure players is, in the absence of clean money? Dirty money! It's inevitable—it's the system the NCAA set up.

And, in what would be a darkly comic turn if it weren't so audacious and infuriating, they're also the ones who are supposed to legislate that system, levying fines and punishment when "violations" occur...which they do, always, from every direction and in perpetuity. Oh, and by the way: Into this combustible mix, toss in rival shoe companies who are desperate to sign the best players by forming relationships when those players are in high school or earlier, and who also sponsor various NCAA teams, so that the pipeline to securing professional contracts with these kids runs right through college basketball.

If you think Nike-sponsored Duke is immune to this system, or uniquely clean, you're naive. If you think that of any big school, you're naive. You don't succeed at getting players like Zion Williamson without getting in the mud with everyone else, because if you don't get in the mud, you get outspent and left behind, and then you lose money and get fired. Simple!

Oh, and in the endless no-accountability circle, it's probably worth noting this short graph from Schlabach's story:

"Duke said it conducted a months-long investigation into Avenatti's allegations and found no evidence of wrongdoing."

You don't say! The people accused of being in bed with shoe reps who throw cash and benefits at major recruits and their families in order to filter them to friendly schools say there's nothing to see here? Well, I guess it's time to move on!

Now, here's where this gets funny: I guarantee you that the NCAA wants none of this. They know their status is lower than ever among the American public, and they know the concept of amateurism has almost completely been revealed as a for-profit scam run on both the public and, more pressingly, the players who should be fairly compensated for the money they generate. They've already been forced to level "allegations" against schools like Louisville and Kansas and many others because of a different FBI case against Adidas, but wouldn't you know it, turns out the Nike side of things isn't clean either!

If there's a "too big to fail" school in college basketball, it's Duke University, and if there's a personality the NCAA desperately doesn't want to see tied to any kind of "corruption," it's Coach K. It's a guarantee that this news went over like a lead balloon at NCAA headquarters, and odds are they'll try to ignore it while seeming to pursue it...a little bit like Duke "investigating" the Zion/Nike allegations.

Now, fair warning: As others pointed out to me on Twitter, a settlement in the Gina Ford v. Zion/CAA lawsuit is by far the most likely outcome, in which case this will all be swept under the rug. You can't ignore an FBI case, but you can ignore a settled lawsuit. So if you hate the NCAA, and think they're screwing over the very players who make them all their money, you should root hard for Gina Ford to be truly vindictive and push this to the brink. The rank hypocrisy is becoming clearer every day, and if Duke comes under the microscope, there will be no way to hide the glaring truth that the entire corrupt enterprise is not due to a few bad actors, but to the bogus, thieving nature of the NCAA's "legal" system of exploitation.