A federal judge on Wednesday dealt a potentially fatal blow to a $100 million lawsuit against former Duke basketball star Zion Williamson, ruling that the contract the player first signed with a Florida agent violates North Carolina law.
In her 20-page opinion, U.S. District Judge Loretta Biggs of Winston-Salem agreed with Williamson’s attorneys that the 2019 agreement he signed with Gina Ford and Prime Sports Marketing fails to meet the requirements of the state’s Uniform Athlete Agents Act.
The law, one of 40 around the country, is designed to protect student-athletes from unscrupulous agents. Williamson was still a Duke student when he signed with Ford and her agency.
In earlier arguments, Williamson’s legal team, including attorney John Wester of Charlotte, said the contract was void because Ford was not a registered sports agent in North Carolina when Williamson signed it. Nor did the agreement include the required warning to Williamson of the ramifications of signing with an agent, including the loss of his collegiate eligibility.
Both steps are required under N.C. law.
In a statement after the ruling, New York attorney Jeffrey Klein of Williamson’s legal team said Biggs followed the law and the facts of the case.
“The Court confirmed that actual facts matter, which hopefully will serve as a cautionary tale for unscrupulous agents looking to prey on student athletes,” Klein’s statement said.
“This decision also reinforces the importance of student athletes defending themselves against false and baseless claims, providing a reminder that courts will separate the truth from the distractions and falsehoods presented by those who seek to avoid the consequences of their actions.
“Today is a good day for truth and justice.”
Williamson, who played for Duke in the 2018-19 season before becoming the top pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, signed with Ford on April 20, 2019. His lawsuit claims the agent began recruiting him during the basketball season when the then-18-year-old quickly became one the country’s best college players.
Six weeks after signing, Williamson announced he was breaking the contract to sign with another agent. In a court filing, Wester described the Ford contract as an “ill-advised, invalid, and onerous agreement.” Williamson filed suit against Ford in the federal courts of the Middle District of North Carolina in June 2019.
Ford countersued six days later in the state courts of Miami-Dade County, Fla., seeking $100 million in damages and setting off a multistate legal fight over the future earnings of the burgeoning NBA star.
In her own filings, Ford and her attorneys said she sent Williamson’s stepfather $100,000 to meet Williamson’s demand for an “immediate” advance on his Prime Sports contract. They also raised the specter that Williamson and his family received impermissible benefits from Duke and several shoe companies, arguing that if he violated his college eligibility he was not protected by North Carolina’s agents act.
Biggs strongly disagreed, arguing that the claims by Ford’s attorneys that Williamson was not a student-athlete at Duke “do not rely on material allegations of fact, rather a conclusion of law that flies in the face of their own pleadings.”
“The Court is not required to assume the truth of legal allegations or conclusions because they are packaged in the form of factual allegations,” the judge wrote.
Biggs also said there was no doubt that Ford was not at a registered North Carolina agent at the time she signed Williamson or that the contract did not include the required warning. Thus, she said, the agreement is void.
Whether Ford and her attorneys will appeal the ruling is unclear. Attorneys Willie Gary and Alvin Pittman did not immediately respond to an Observer email seeking comment.
Williamson, now in his second season with the New Orleans Pelicans, is averaging 23.4 points and 8 rebounds a game.