Duke University said it is investigating allegations by celebrity attorney Michael Avenatti that Nike paid bribe money to basketball star Zion Williamson’s mother to convince him to attend the school.
Avenatti, who currently faces federal charges for allegedly attempting to extort Nike, claimed in a series of tweets on Friday that Williamson’s mother, Sharona Sampson, received payments in the form of “bogus consulting services” in 2016 and 2017, while he was still in high school. The embattled attorney argued that the payments amounted to bribes that would influence Williamson to attend Duke, where Nike holds exclusive apparel rights.
“We are aware of the allegation and, as we would with any compliance matter, are looking into it,” Duke athletic director Kevin White said in a statement. “Duke is fully committed to compliance with all NCAA rules and regulations. Every student-athlete at Duke is reviewed to ensure their eligibility. With regard to men’s basketball: all recruits and their families are thoroughly vetted by Duke in collaboration with the NCAA through the Eligibility Center’s amateurism certification process.”
Federal authorities charged Avenatti last month with attempting to extort Nike for $20 million in exchange for suppressing allegations that the sports apparel giant had illegally funneled money to top basketball recruits. Avenatti published documents that detailed purported illicit transactions between Nike and representatives for several basketball stars, including DeAndre Ayton and Bol Bol.
Nike has repeatedly denied wrongdoing. The company has not commented on whether Avenatti’s documents are authentic.
“Nike will not respond to the allegations of an individual facing federal charges of fraud and extortion and aid in his disgraceful attempts to distract from the athletes on the court at the height of the tournament," Nike said in a statement obtained by the Oregonian. "Nike will continue its cooperation with the government’s investigation into grassroots basketball and the related extortion case.”
Williamson earned All-American honors during his freshman season at Duke, leading the school to a 32-6 record. He is widely expected to be the first overall pick in the upcoming NBA Draft.