Federal Appeals Court wrestles with Zion Williamson agent dispute

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  • The 4th US Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral arguments in a dispute between former Duke basketball star Zion Williamson and his former marketing agency.
  • A federal court labeled Williamson's contract with the agency void in 2022. The judge ruled that the agency had run afoul of a state law protecting student-athletes.
  • The agency argues Williamson should not have enjoyed the law's protections. The case includes claims that Williamson was not a student-athlete because he had declared his intentions to go pro and had accepted impermissible benefits before attending Duke.

The 4th US Circuit Court of Appeals will decide in the weeks or months ahead whether to uphold a lower court’s ruling favoring pro basketball star Zion Williamson over his former sports marketing agency. A three-judge appellate panel heard oral arguments in the case Tuesday.

US District Judge Loretta Biggs ruled in Williamson’s favor in 2022. Biggs determined that Prime Sports Marketing and its president, Gina Ford, violated North Carolina’s Uniform Athlete Agent Act. The law is designed to protect student-athletes like Williamson, who starred during his single season playing for Duke University in 2018-19.

Prime Sports was not registered in North Carolina. Its contract with Williamson lacked required warning notices, Biggs ruled. Williamson had the right to walk away from that contract, according to the District Court.

But Ford and her agency argue that Williamson should not have enjoyed the law’s protections. Prime Sports argues that Williamson should not have been considered a student-athlete. Court filings allege that Williamson’s family accepted improper benefits while he was still a student.

Biggs labeled that argument moot. The NCAA considered Williamson eligible to play, so Prime Sports was subject to the provisions of state law. Its contract with Williamson was invalid.

“Zion Williamson is not an athlete who needed the protections of the UAAA,” argued Douglas Eaton, the attorney for Prime Sports and Ford. “Zion Williamson was the guaranteed No. 1 draft pick in the 2019 NBA draft and had declared at the time he signed a contract with my clients … that he was going to leave Duke and join the NBA. There was never any question that’s what was going to happen. He had been talking about that since high school.”

“So this is a player who was not in need of the protections of the statute, which is designed to protect players who want to continue their college career from inadvertently losing their eligibility,” Eaton added. “So the court shouldn’t have any concern that a ruling here is going to somehow negatively impact those types of students.”

Chief Appeals Court Judge Albert Diaz questioned Eaton’s opening words. “You say that this statute was intended to protect someone like Zion Williamson,” Diaz said. “But by definition the statute is intended to protect any athlete who might be contemplating a professional career by warning him or her that if they decide to sign a contract — the kind that Mr. Williamson signed — that there’s a potential to lose your eligibility. Why isn’t he in that class of athletes?”

“Because Mr. Williamson had no intention of continuing to use his eligibility,” Eaton responded.

“Well, he could always change his mind, I suppose. Right?” Diaz answered.

Eaton argued that the case involved the additional issue of whether Williamson had lost college eligibility before signing the contract.

“According to the District Court and Williamson’s attorneys, you can only lose your eligibility if the NCAA declares you ineligible, and that’s simply not the case here,” Eaton said. “The issue here is whether or not we are entitled to look behind the fact that he played college basketball to determine whether or not the statute applies to him — whether he met the statutory definition of a student-athlete.”

“Our contention was that he did not because he took improper benefits prior to coming to Duke,” Eaton added. Biggs should not have deferred to the NCAA in determining Williamson’s eligibility, the Prime Sports attorney argued.  

Eaton cited a portion of the state law that said an athlete who is “permanently ineligible to play” is not a protected student-athlete.

“Isn’t that … sentence referring, though, to multisport athletes?” responded US District Judge Jamar Walker of Virginia, who joined Diaz and Appeals Court Judge Wlliam Traxler on the three-judge appellate panel, “essentially saying they retain their eligibility in any sport that they are not ineligible in.”

The case also involves allegations that Creative Artists Agency, the agent Williamson chose over Prime Sports, used Ford’s work to finalize endorsement deals for the star player.  

“Prime Sports flagrantly violated the agents act when they failed to register and failed to provide the requisite warnings, and as a result the contract is void,” argued Zachary Tripp, the lawyer representing Williamson at the 4th Circuit.

Ford never registered as an agent, Tripp said. “District Court found it undisputed that she … held herself out as an athlete agent and that the parties engaged each other during the season while he was still playing,” he argued. “That’s really all you need to know.”

“Under any reasonable understanding of the term ‘student-athlete,’ including the one that is defined in the text, of course he was a student-athlete,” Tripp added. “He was playing college basketball for Duke, wearing the Duke uniform at Cameron Stadium. He’s at the absolute epicenter of the statutory definition.”