Fresh out of custody after his arrest on charges that he attempted to extort Nike, lawyer Michael Avenatti re-upped claims that the sports apparel giant had paid top college basketball recruits to wear its gear.
In a series of tweets posted early Tuesday, the attorney best known for once representing porn actress Stormy Daniels in her case against President Donald Trump reiterated his allegation that the supposed scandal “reaches the highest levels of Nike.” Avenatti pointed the finger at former Nike and Adidas executive Merl Code and current Nike executive Carlton DeBose, plus two players he said were involved in the scandal: DeAndre Ayton, a former University of Arizona athlete, and Bol Bol, who played for the University of Oregon this season.
Tossing out actual names may seem to lend credence to Avenatti’s initial claims about scandal at Nike. In reality, this is mainly old news, and unless Avenatti has something far more explosive up his sleeve, all he’s revealed over his last two days of tweeting is his own ignorance of what everybody else knows about major college sports.
Ayton and the University of Arizona, in fact, had already been linked to the Department of Justice’s broader investigation into alleged corruption in college basketball, which began in 2017 when federal prosecutors from the Southern District of New York indicted nearly a dozen people on fraud charges related to under-the-table payments made to top recruits and their families. The indictments included charges against Code and another executive at Adidas, the shoe company that, like Nike, holds apparel deals with various college basketball programs. The executives had, according to the complaint, facilitated payments to basketball recruits in order to steer them to schools that Adidas sponsors.
In February 2018, ESPN reported that the FBI had intercepted phone calls between Arizona men’s basketball coach Sean Miller and sports agent Christian Dawkins in which they discussed paying Ayton $100,000. Dawkins and the two Adidas executives were convicted on fraud charges earlier this year. Further allegations against Arizona emerged last October at the first trial related to the investigation, during which testimony linked former assistant coaches to cash offers made to recruits.
Miller denied the allegations in the ESPN report and still coaches at Arizona. Ayton, a top-ranked recruit in the high school class of 2017, is now with the NBA’s Phoenix Suns.
Although Arizona is a Nike-sponsored school, Nike itself has not been directly implicated in the federal corruption probe. On Monday, the company responded to Avenatti’s allegations and arrest by saying in a statement that it “will not be extorted or hide information that is relevant to a government investigation.” Nike added that it had been cooperating with the corruption investigation for more than a year.
Avenatti disputed Nike’s statement in his Tuesday tweets, insisting that the company had lied to the government. “Nike’s attempt at diversion and cover-up will fail miserably once prosecutors realize they have been played by Nike and their lawyers,” he said.
The lawyer named Nike’s DeBose and the University of Oregon’s Bol seemingly as proof, given that neither had been publicly linked to the scandal before his tweets. Oregon holds an apparel contract with Nike.
But even if you assume Avenatti’s accusations are totally correct, this bit of news is yawn-worthy, too. The mention of Ayton, Arizona and multiple other coaches from Nike-sponsored schools more than a year ago offered hints of Nike’s potential links to the probe, and Nike’s Elite Youth Basketball League, which DeBose oversees, was reportedly subpoenaed in 2017. There’s been plenty of speculation that Code, one of the two Adidas executives convicted in October, had engaged in similar practices when he was at Nike. And there’s no reason to believe Adidas was the only major shoe company involved in the sort of activity that federal prosecutors have called “corruption.”
Avenatti’s tweets sound similar to the way prosecutors from the Southern District of New York contend he threatened Nike in a series of phone calls with the company’s attorneys earlier this month. According to the federal complaint released after his arrest on Monday, Avenatti told Nike attorneys that a client of his could expose evidence that top company executives made payments to recruits. He allegedly said he would stay quiet only if Nike made millions of dollars in hush money payments.
“I’ll go take ten billion dollars off your client’s market cap,” Avenatti told attorneys for Nike on March 19, according to the complaint. “I’m not fucking around.”
Nike stock temporarily dipped after Avenatti’s initial threat to link it to the broader scandal. But the idea that the lawyer possesses information that could cripple Nike seems unlikely given that federal prosecutors haven’t been able to dent the reputations of Adidas or college basketball as a whole, which has continued to thrive despite the ongoing trials and investigations.
That’s not really surprising. All the prosecutors did in 2017 was reveal the worst-kept secret in sports. The NCAA’s amateurism rules, which limit the amount schools can pay athletes in exchange for their labor, have created a black market in which shoe companies, agents, boosters and coaches facilitate payments in one manner or another to those athletes instead.
When he left court on Monday, Avenatti told reporters that he would “never stop fighting the good fight” against big-shot corporations like Nike. But Avenatti is ultimately just defending the interests of another exploitative enterprise ― the NCAA ― by engaging in the same sort of misguided, whack-a-mole brand of investigation at the heart of the federal corruption probe.
There’s nothing truly surprising to see here, merely a few newish names and a shoe company potentially engaging in the otherwise standard practice of paying marketable athletes to wear its sneakers. None of this would rise to the level of scandal or potential illegality were it not for the NCAA’s archaic rules and the U.S. government’s decision to enforce them ― a choice that seems to have only entrenched the sort of grifting behavior that the NCAA and (allegedly) Avenatti are so good at.