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Court filings in Michael Avenatti case describe ruthless recruiting battles involving Under Armour

Michael Avenatti outside court in New York on July 23.
Michael Avenatti outside court in New York on July 23. (Richard Drew / Associated Press)

Under Armour engaged in ruthless competition with Nike and Adidas for the loyalties of youth basketball stars, according to evidence filed last week by attorney Michael Avenatti in his attempt to fight federal extortion charges.

The controversial attorney stands accused of trying to shake down Nike for as much as $25 million, and he has countered by releasing documents that detail the shoe company’s activities in the murky world of youth basketball recruiting, where Under Armour and Adidas are chief rivals.

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The 300 pages of court filings include a July 2016 email from Carlton DeBose, the director of Nike’s Elite Youth Basketball League, that says payments to some players from “the competition” could reach $100,000.

“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 in his message to Nico Harrison, Nike’s vice president of North American Basketball Operations.

Though DeBose did not directly accuse Under Armour of paying players, he bemoaned Nike’s “unsustainable” position in an untamed recruiting world. He wrote that 38 of 40 teams in the company’s Elite Youth Basketball League “had to pay a moderate to considerable ransom to families to just play in the EYBL.”

“Adidas and UA have attacked us where I warned and feared,” he continued. “They have given the talking point: ‘you have served your time with NIKE. You have done everything that they asked of you. You owe them no loyalty. You now have the opportunity to do something for yourself and family. Don't let them control you.’ … So as a result presenting loyalty to a family falls on deaf ears because they have taken considerably less to play on the NIKE circuit.”

DeBose portrayed Nike as more scrupulous than its competitors: “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.”

An Under Armour representative declined to comment.

Avenatti’s filings include earlier and later texts and emails in which DeBose and other Nike officials appeared to discuss plans to pay then-high school stars such as 2019 NBA No. 1 overall pick Zion Williamson. There is no evidence in the filings that Williamson was offered or accepted the discussed payments.

If proved, such payments would violate NCAA rules.

Avenatti was indicted in May on federal charges that he attempted to extort as much as $25 million from Nike by threatening to expose the company’s alleged payments to high-profile amateur basketball players.

The celebrity attorney, best known for representing adult film star Stormy Daniels in her battles with President Donald Trump, has pleaded not guilty and has asked a U.S. District Court judge in New York to dismiss all charges. Avenatti has said he was merely representing a California youth coach, formerly sponsored by Nike, who was acting as a whistleblower.

Avenatti’s case has put Nike at the center of an ongoing storm around recruiting practices for basketball prospects who, in some cases, are still in middle school.

The company has declined to respond to Avenatti’s words or filings, saying in a statement: “Nike will not respond to the allegations of an individual facing federal charges of fraud and extortion. Nike will continue its cooperation with the government's investigation into grassroots basketball and the related extortion case."

Earlier this year, three former Adidas officials received prison sentences after convictions for wire fraud and wire-fraud conspiracy in connection with a sweeping federal investigation of that company’s efforts to steer players to college programs such as Louisville, Kansas and N.C. State.

An Adidas spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment on Avenatti’s filings.

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