Filings suggest Nike paid in pursuit of players

ByMark Schlabach ESPN logo
Saturday, August 17, 2019

Newly released evidence in the federal government's criminal case against attorney Michael Avenatti suggests employees at Nike were paying high-profile college basketball prospects' handlers and families tens of thousands of dollars in under-the-table payments.

In an email on July 30, 2016, Carlton DeBose -- the director of Nike's EYBL grassroots basketball division -- wrote that bidding for top players reached as much as $100,000.

In the email to Nico Harrison, the company's vice president of North American basketball operations, DeBose suggested Nike was still at a disadvantage against competitors such as Adidas and Under Armour in efforts to secure top prospects.

"It has always been a thankless journey but we are now sitting ducks because our competition and enemies have decided to no longer fight us on our turf but go where we rightfully refuse to go for all of the right reasons," DeBose wrote, according to emails and text messages that were filed Friday at U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. "We have a code. Our enemies don't."

"We are viewed as having too much influence," DeBose continued. "The perception and resulting reality is that we dictate where players go to school. In addition, it is known that we make it hard for agents and runners to attend our events and will escort them off the premises. The same agents and runners are given free reign (sic) at [Adidas] and UA events and reps for both companies frequently broker meetings and deals for families/agents."

In a text message exchange on July 6, 2017, with an assistant coach at the University of Kentucky -- identified with only the initials KP in records submitted as exhibits in the federal criminal case -- DeBose wrote that he provided money to about 10 Nike EYBL coaches "who are helping families to the total of about 200K annually."

Kentucky has an assistant coach named Kenny Payne. Neither Payne nor Wildcats coach John Calipari could be reached Friday night for comment.

"Do you help people like [an EYBL coach] and [unidentified coach] every year and how many people asked you to help them," the UK coach asked in a text message. "They both are happy u are helping them how many more are their (sic)."

"Those two," DeBose wrote. "And about 10 other brothers. ... about 10 coaches who are helping families to the total of about 200K annually and I still have to meet budget."

"You're the only one that knows about it [because] so many of these dudes are selfish and would want more [because] they would argue that someone else doesn't deserve the help more than they do," DeBose continued. "It's a stressful balancing act."

In an earlier email exchange between DeBose and Mel McDonald, a California-based basketball trainer who worked with Arizona's Deandre Ayton and Oregon's Bol Bol, McDonald outlined payments that were to be made to the handlers and family of an unnamed player.

Sources told ESPN the player was Ayton, who played one season at Arizona in 2017-18 before turning pro. He was the No. 1 pick of the 2018 NBA draft by the Phoenix Suns.

The alleged payments to people associated with Ayton total about $65,000, according to the email, and included payments to an immigration attorney and $3,500 "for Bahamas to dad." Ayton grew up in the Bahamas before moving to the U.S. in high school.

The exhibits filed Friday also included emails and text messages that alleged a Nike employee approved at least under-the-table payments to former Duke star Zion Williamson and ex-Indiana star Romeo Langford when they were still in high school in February 2017. The alleged offers were $35,000 or more for Williamson and $20,000 for Langford.

There is no evidence the offers or payments were made to Williamson, Langford or their families. Williamson played one season at Duke and was the No. 1 pick by the New Orleans Pelicans in this year's NBA draft. Langford also was one-and-done at Indiana and was the No. 14 pick by the Boston Celtics.

In an email on April 18, 2017, an EYBL coach expressed concern to Nike officials about the rampant payouts to players.

"The 'secrets' of players and/or their families 'getting paid' are no longer secrets and quite frankly are spoken about rather openly," the unnamed EYBL coach wrote. "I can't see how this ends well for Nike or the EYBL. Some of us will be deemed guilty by association others will be found guilty of failure to supervise [think Rick Pitino]."

"Nike will not respond to the allegations of an individual facing federal charges of fraud and extortion," Nike said in a statement earlier this week. "Nike will continue its cooperation with the government's investigation into grassroots basketball and the related extortion case."

Avenatti was arrested and charged by federal prosecutors in March with attempting to extort up to $25 million from Nike by threatening to expose the shoe company's alleged improper payments to high-profile players in the EYBL.

Avenatti has pleaded not guilty, and his lawyers on Wednesday asked a federal judge to dismiss the charges on grounds of vindictive and selective prosecution.