After a five-month investigation into lawyer Michael Avenatti’s allegations that Nike paid athletes, including Zion Williamson, to attend college basketball programs it sponsored, Duke “found no evidence” the former Blue Devils basketball star’s eligibility was compromised, according to information provided exclusively to The News & Observer on Friday.
Duke spokesman Michael Schoenfeld, in an email to The News & Observer, confirmed the university’s investigation was completed with no findings of any NCAA violations involving Williamson, the 2019 ACC player of the year.
“As soon as Duke was made aware of any allegation that might have affected Zion Williamson’s eligibility, we conducted a thorough and objective investigation which was directed by individuals outside the athletics department,” Schoenfeld wrote. “We found no evidence to support any allegation. Zion thrived as both a student and an athlete at Duke, and always conducted himself with integrity and purpose.”
Duke declined to offer any further details of the investigation.
Avenatti, in a statement to the News & Observer Friday night, said that Duke didn’t seek information from him as part of its investigation. Without providing further documentation, he repeated his claim that Nike paid Williamson and that Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski was not only aware of the payment, but has been part of such payments to players for years.
“I never heard from anyone associated with Duke in connection with my allegations or any investigation,” Avenatti said. “I was never asked a single question. I was never asked what information or documents that I was aware of. Who the hell conducted this investigation? Inspector Clouseau? The documents and the hard evidence do not lie. Zion Williamson was paid to attend Duke. Coach K has made and facilitated payments to players for years. And when the truth comes out -- and eventually it will -- Coach K and Duke’s reputation will be forever and rightfully tarnished.”
And if what I am saying is untrue, I challenge Coach K and Duke University to file a defamation lawsuit against me tomorrow and we can let the chips fall where they may.”
Duke officials declined to comment about Avenatti’s statement.
The U.S. Justice Department has charged Avenatti with attempting to extort $25 million from Nike. Avenatti, who has plead not guilty, was representing former California youth basketball coach Gary Franklin, who claimed Nike ended its sponsorship of his team because he failed to participate in a pay-for-play scheme involving high school basketball stars.
Avenatti tweets about Zion, Nike
Nike has been a long-time sponsor of Duke and head basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski.
On April 5, less than two weeks after he was arrested by the FBI, Avenatti used his Twitter account to accuse Nike of paying Williamson’s mother to ensure he attended a Nike-sponsored school.
“Can you please ask Zion Williamson’s mother — Sharonda Sampson — whether she was paid by @nike for bogus “consulting services” in 2016/17 as part of a Nike bribe to get Zion to go to Duke?” Avenatti tweeted.
In response, Duke athletics director Kevin White released a statement the following day saying Duke would “look into” the allegation against Williamson.
White added in the emailed statement that “all recruits and their families are thoroughly vetted by Duke in collaboration with the NCAA through the Eligibility Center’s amateurism certification process.”
Williamson played one season at Duke, helping the Blue Devils go 32-6 and win the ACC championship. He averaged 22.6 points per game, winning several national player of the year awards as well as being named ACC player of the year.
The New Orleans Pelicans selected him with the No. 1 overall pick in last June’s NBA draft.
Nike texts, emails discussing payments
Avenatti was arrested last March in New York when he arrived for a meeting with Nike officials carrying evidence he considered damning against the worldwide shoe and apparel company.
According to the government’s criminal complaint against him, Avenatti threatened to hold a press conference and release the information publicly unless Nike paid Franklin $1.5 million and hired Avenatti to conduct an internal investigation into its practices.
Avenatti asked Nike to pay him $15-25 million for the investigation or $22.5 million to guarantee “confidentiality” and so that he would “ride off into the sunset,” according to documents filed with the court in the case.
Avenatti’s lawyers, as part of his defense, have since entered into evidence documents that detail 2017 conversations between three Nike officials discussing plans to pay Williamson and former Indiana player Romeo Langford.
Copies of text messages and emails between Nike officials Carlton DeBose, John Stovall and Jamal James were made public on Aug. 16.
All three men were involved with Nike’s Elite Youth Basketball League, a grassroots program involving teams from around the country.
On Feb. 12, 2017, the three Nike executives discussed paying more than $35,000 plus to Williamson, $20,000 to Langford and $15,000 to an unnamed player from Michigan. The unnamed player’s name was redacted because he was a minor at the time.
No evidence has been presented that Williamson or any of the players received payments.
Because of all these allegations involving Williamson, Duke embarked on a deeper dive into the player and his family.
The school, not the athletics department, oversaw the investigation and found no evidence supporting Avenatti’s claims regarding Williamson.