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Duke looking into allegation against Zion Williamson

Duke’s Zion Williamson talks about the disappointment of not making it to the Final Four

Duke's Zion Williamson talks with reporters following the Blue Devils' loss to Michigan State in the Elite 8 of the NCAA Tournament March 31, 2019.
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Duke's Zion Williamson talks with reporters following the Blue Devils' loss to Michigan State in the Elite 8 of the NCAA Tournament March 31, 2019.

Though he faces federal extortion charges for his interactions with Nike, attorney Michael Avenatti isn’t backing down with his allegations the shoe company bribed college athletes.

He used his Twitter account late Friday night to allege the company paid the mother of Duke all-American Zion Williamson an undisclosed amount of cash to ensure he attended a Nike-sponsored school.

“Can you please ask Zion Williamson’s mother — Sharonda Sampson — whether she was paid by @nike for bogus “consulting services” in 2016/17 as part of a Nike bribe to get Zion to go to Duke?” Avenatti wrote.

Avenatti offered no specifics or proof of his claim.

In an emailed statement on Saturday, Duke athletic director Kevin White said the school is “looking into” the allegation.

“We are aware of the allegation and, as we would with any compliance matter, are looking into it,” White said. “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.”

In addition to his charge against Williamson, Avenatti also made public 41 pages of documents showing Nike’s scheme to pay recruits. Neither Williamson nor Duke are mentioned in any of the documents, which instead focus on former Arizona player DeAndre Ayton and former Oregon player Bol Bol, among others.

On March 25, Avenatti was charged with extortion by federal authorities in New York and Los Angeles. The complaint alleged that Avenatti demanded $20 million from Nike in exchange for not revealing the evidence he’d obtained showing the payments to players.

This week, Avenatti is making good on his promise to release the information, including the allegation against Williamson.

A 6-foot-7 forward from Spartanburg, S.C., Williamson just completed what will be his only season at Duke by being named a consensus all-American. He’s won several national player of the year awards and is expected to be the No. 1 pick in June’s NBA Draft.

Duke went 32-6, winning the ACC championship but losing to Michigan State, 68-67, one win short of the Final Four last Sunday.

Former Adidas executive James Gatto and consultant Merl Code were convicted last October in a New York federal court of on corruption charges related to paying top recruits. Those charges stemmed from an FBI investigation into corruption in college basketball. Code ran Nike’s grassroots basketball program prior to leaving to work for Adidas.

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An Illinois native, Steve Wiseman has covered Duke athletics since 2010 for the Durham Herald-Sun and Raleigh News & Observer. Prior to his arrival in Durham, he worked for newspapers in Columbia and Spartanburg, S.C., Biloxi, Miss., and Charlotte covering beats including the NFL’s Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints, University of South Carolina athletics and the S.C. General Assembly.
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