Court Docs Detail Nike's Alleged Discussions over Plans to Pay Zion, Ayton, More

Paul KasabianSenior ContributorAugust 17, 2019

A Nike Swoosh is seen on a basketball at Niketown in Portland, Ore., Tuesday, March 21, 2006.  Nike Inc. is expected to release third-quarter earnings after the close of trading. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
RICK BOWMER/Associated Press

Nike executives allegedly discussed plans to pay NBA players Zion Williamson and Romeo Langford while they were still in high school, according to federal court documents obtained by Yahoo Sports' Pat Forde, Pete Thamel and Dan Wetzel.

Furthermore, Nike execs allegedly wrote about payments made to people in Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton's inner circle during the big man's high school days. 

Per the Yahoo report, "a series of text messages from February 2017 between [Nike Elite Youth Basketball League director Carlton DeBose], Nike recruiting coordinator John Stovall and Nike EYBL manager Jamal James [concerned] a plan to potentially pay three playersWilliamson, Langford and a player from Michigan whose name is redacted because he is still a minor. All three were still in high school, or younger, at the time."

The documents also cover an email allegedly sent by Mel McDonald, described as a "handler" for Ayton, to DeBose that "appears to detail money spent on Ayton and people affiliated with him, including $65,840 in expenses for cellphone, travel, and immigration costs. Per Yahoo Sports, "it is unclear whether McDonald was seeking reimbursement for those expenses."

The McDonald email also contains a list of what the Yahoo report called "apparent payouts" to those close to Ayton, such as $5,000 for Christmas gifts and $3,000 for cellphones.

Lawyer Michael Avenatti produced the documents in court as part of his ongoing legal battle with the apparel and shoe company.

Avenatti was arrested on extortion charges in March. The lawyer allegedly was attempting to extort $25 million from Nike.

Per Yahoo Sports, "prosecutors allege he tried to 'shake down' Nike by demanding they hire him to run an internal investigation of the EYBL or he would reveal incriminating details of the payouts."

The payments regarding Williamson, Langford and a minor from Michigan were revealed in a group text from James to DeBose. James asked if they would be "willing to do...whatever may be needed for the Zion/Romeo situations as well as the money we're now going to do for the [minor] kid in Michigan."

Stovall responded with the following numbers (exact denominations unknown) for each: Langford (20), Zion (35-plus), Minor (15). He also wrote that an unspecified middle man had "still not presented our new offer" to Williamson.

"Only hinted at it," Stovall wrote. "He did not want to put it in print which I agreed with."

As for Ayton, the alleged payment number may have been larger than what originally appeared in an email between McDonald and DeBose. Of note, Avenatti "released documents alleging that Nike made $83,000 in payments to people affiliated with Ayton."

Williamson eventually played for Duke during the 2018-19 season and won the men's Naismith College Player of the Year award before the New Orleans Pelicans took him first in the 2019 NBA draft. He signed an endorsement deal with Nike's Jordan Brand.

Langford played at Indiana for one season and was named a second-team All-Big Ten member. The Boston Celtics drafted him 14th overall, and he is signed with Adidas.

Ayton played at Arizona and was a consensus first-team All-American during his lone year in school. The Suns took him first overall in the 2018 draft, and he is signed with Nike.