Zion Williamson, fresh off of his sensational freshman season at Duke, was selected with the No. 1 overall pick by the New Orleans Pelicans in the 2019 NBA draft last week. Judging by his emotional reaction to being drafted, it was one of the most memorable moments of his life.
However, the moment was likely clouded by the $100 million lawsuit hanging over his head.
Earlier this month, Williamson sued Prime Sports Marketing, LLC. and its president, Gina Ford, in North Carolina, alleging that he was misled into an agency contract. Williamson says that he took the appropriate steps to void the contract he signed with Prime Sports, and he filed the lawsuit in order to obtain a court ruling that declares his contract null and void.
Williamson was seeking to void the earlier contract because, on May 30, he signed with Creative Artists Agency (CAA) to negotiate both his employment with the New Orleans Pelicans and for any endorsement and marketing opportunities. He notified Ford and Prime Sports that he would be terminating their contract a day later. CAA is one of the most powerful sports and entertainment agencies in the world.
Ford and Prime Sports have filed a countersuit to the tune of $100 million, alleging that Williamson breached a contract that he willingly signed, and she depicts Williamson, along with CAA, conspiring to steal her work. Ford claims that she had secured a deal with EA Sports, and had engaged in negotiations with companies such as Mercedes Benz, T-Mobile, Beats by Dre, General Mills and Puma on behalf of Williamson.
CAA, agency basketball agent Austin Brown and CAA executive Lisa Joseph-Metelus have all been named in the countersuit.
Williamson, CAA, Brown and Joseph-Metelus did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.
In his lawsuit, Williamson claims that Ford and Prime Sports, by signing him when they did, violated a North Carolina law that protects student-athletes from unscrupulous agents.
In a statement provided to CNN, Jeffrey S. Klein, an attorney for Williamson, said “Mr. Williamson properly exercised his rights under the law to void his business dealings with Prime Sports Marketing. Prime Sports Marketing’s continued threats against Mr. Williamson made necessary the filing of this lawsuit.”
The law Klein refers to is the Uniform Athlete Agent Act (UAAA).
Ford is not a registered player agent with the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA), Williamson’s lawsuit says, and that means she is not considered a certified agent in the NCAA and is not licensed by the NCAA. By not registering with the North Carolina Secretary of State’s Office prior to dealing with Williamson while he was an amateur athlete, Ford broke the UAAA, according to Williamson, which allows Williamson to void the contract.
Ford declined to comment to CNN about Williamson’s allegations against her.
But in her countersuit, Ford claims the UAAA no longer applied to Williamson at the point that she signed him, because he forfeited his NCAA eligibility and no longer intended to compete as a college athlete.
Ford argues that Williamson “repeatedly and publically declared and made it abundantly clear that he was not ever returning to intercollegiate basketball.”
If Williamson had already forfeited his NCAA eligibility, one legal analyst says, then it might not have been a violation of the UAAA to sign with Ford.
“If he already forfeited his eligibility on a given date, and if the only question were what happened after that date (obviously, in this dispute, there is substantial debate about that), then the UAAA would not be an issue,” ‘Sports Illustrated’ legal analyst Michael McCann tells CNN.
It is notable that Williamson filed suit in a North Carolina court, as the stipulations of North Carolina’s UAAA are paramount in Williamson’s argument against Ford and Prime Sports. Ford, on the other hand, filed the suit in a Florida court, where there are no such protections.
“As a pragmatic matter, the two sides are engaged in ‘forum shopping’,” says McCann. “Their goal is to litigate in a forum with the most advantageous law and legal practices. Williamson would prefer to sue in North Carolina due to the state’s UAAA and due to the fact that potential jurors would include persons with favorable views of Duke players.
“Ford sees Florida as more favorable law given that, with respect to college athletes, Florida law does not impose the same contractual requirements on marketing agents as it does on player agents. Florida is also where Ford and Prime Sports are based. In addition, the contract Ford signed with Williamson includes a term expressing that it is governed by Florida law.”
Ford’s lawyer, JoAnn Squillace, said in a statement to CNN that Ford “is deeply saddened and disappointed that what was once a promising business relationship with Mr. Williamson has now resorted to legal action. She looks forward to her day in court in the proper Jurisdiction of the State of Florida, the laws of which Mr. Williamson agreed would govern the terms and conditions of his contract with Prime Sports Marketing, and for a jury to hold all of the Defendants accountable for the wrongs they committed against her and against Prime Sports Marketing.”
“Like many litigations, expect this one to end in a settlement,” says McCann. “Chances are it won’t follow Williamson too long into his very promising NBA career. But it may require some of his money to make it go away.”