In the fight against NCAA amateurism rules, in the fight against the overall financial hypocrisy of our athlete breeding system, Zion Williamson doesn’t figure to be the revolutionary soldier. Greed-mongers can relax. As long as Williamson truly has just a mild knee sprain, the Curious Case of the Exploding Shoe will go down as a powerful anecdote rather than a tipping point in the long-running conflict over college student-athlete exploitation.
Based on everything Williamson has revealed about himself, he seems unlikely to react by hurling a basketball through the status quo. When healthy again, he won’t sit out just to protect his draft stock. He won’t make a larger point. He will continue to believe in Duke’s “Brotherhood” and chase the program’s sixth national championship and finish a one-season partnership with Coach Mike Krzyzewski that has elevated his reputation from YouTube dunking sensation to well-rounded potential NBA franchise player.
“I just can’t stop playing,” Williamson recently told Josh Graham of the Sports Hub Triad radio station in North Carolina. “I’d be letting my teammates down. I’d be letting a lot of people down. If I wanted to sit out, I wouldn’t have went to college. I came to Duke to play.”
This flawed, unfair and preposterous system shouldn’t fear Williamson. The real threat is that gifted young athlete — and the parents of that gifted young athlete — who gasped when Williamson went down temporarily Wednesday night with what the school is calling a Grade 1 right knee sprain. They’re the ones listening to the debate, unfastened from emotion and commitment and unplugged from all the noise and adoration. They’re taking notes on all the entities that prospered on the biggest night of this college basketball season: Duke, the NCAA, the Atlantic Coast Conference and those justifying the sport’s robust television deal; Phil Knight’s Nike kingdom, which pays Coach K and the Duke athletic department to wear its exploding shoes for marketing purposes; the secondary ticket sites that charged more than $3,000 for seats; the bars and restaurants from Durham to Chapel Hill that overflowed because of this super-sized, Zion-aided round of the Duke-North Carolina rivalry.
One day, sooner than we realize, some gifted young athlete and his family will concoct a plan to make an example of all the hypocrites protecting and profiting from our rigid definition of amateurism in sports. It will take a Williamson-like player — transcendent talent, irresistible flair — and such personalities are rare. But his accident represents another step toward revolt. A soldier is coming, one with the game and importance and social awareness to combat a system that remains condescendingly paternalistic and downright unfair to the athletes doing most of the work.
Greed-mongers can sigh, if they wish, because Williamson’s injury is just a tremor. Or they can realize the ground will shake again. It would be wise for them to prepare by pushing for progressive policies and coming to the table with fresh ideas intended to make the system more monetarily equitable.
I’m not in favor of simply paying college athletes because there should be some distinction between amateurs and professionals, and the value of a college scholarship shouldn’t be ignored in this debate. But there are ways short of handing out checks blindly to increase compensation of athletes whose teams generate major revenue while also protecting some level of amateur integrity.
Despite the criticism it receives — despite the criticism it often deserves — the NCAA implemented some decent changes recently in response to recommendations from its Commission on College Basketball. The commission, which included former basketball stars such as Grant Hill and David Robinson and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, was formed in response to the scandal that rocked the sport last season: a federal investigation into fraud in college hoops recruiting in September 2017. It made recommendations, and the NCAA’s board of governors has followed some of the advice.
The new policies include: loosening some eligibility restrictions for players who attempt to go pro; allowing agents to enter the process earlier; tweaking the recruiting calendar and practices in hopes of “minimizing harmful outside influences;” streamlining the enforcement system and eliminating conflicts of interest by employing independent investigators; and strengthening penalties to hold coaches, athletic directors and university presidents more accountable for breaking rules.
It’s a good first step, but let’s hope the NCAA resists the urge to consider it a panacea. There is nothing wrong with a multi-phase effort to reach a breakthrough; fail to do more, however, and these changes ultimately will go down as half-measures.
What should be next? Use the uproar over Williamson’s busted shoe as a watershed moment for reform in the way that athletic apparel companies funnel money to colleges and universities. Make the issue complicated, or listen to the fundamental logic: Why is Coach K making money off Zion’s feet?
The system should be a modified version of how the pros operate. Schools can sign their own apparel deals, just like the leagues do, but the players should be able to make their own decisions about their sneakers or cleats. Instead of formal shoe endorsement contracts, all elite college athletes should be able to grant right-of-refusal options to the sneaker companies — for a fee held in a trust until they finish or forfeit their college eligibility. Put limits on the amount based upon pro potential, which a governing board would determine. It would minimize cheating for marginal prospects because the independent group would determine what they qualify to receive based a scale with specific criteria.
In practice, it would work this way: Let’s say Williamson, as a future top-five NBA draft pick, qualifies for a maximum $4 million. The shoe companies then can bid up to that amount for negotiating rights when he turns pro. Williamson doesn’t get the money until he goes to the NBA, but at least he has some control and some financial security beyond taking out an insurance policy on his body.
Those are the kinds of radical ideas that need to be pursued and then perfected to create a better system and eliminate some of the money being made unworthily off these players.
In basketball, it would be a game-changer if the NCAA and the NBA came together to change the developmental system as we know it. Include the prominent high school and summer-league programs and shoe companies in the conversation, too. But ultimately, the policies need to come from the two most important levels of American basketball. For too long, the NCAA has blamed its problems on one-and-done college players, and the NBA has responded to criticism about its age limit by saying, in an almost threatening tone, “Well, if college doesn’t want all of these great 18-year-olds, maybe we need to step in.”
I’ve covered NCAA President Mark Emmert going back to when he ran the University of Washington. He gets ripped partly because anyone who’s unwilling to burn down the NCAA gets ripped. But Emmert is a smart man who, if given a greater calling, has the potential to inspire extraordinary change. And in his five years as the NBA commissioner, Adam Silver has been almost flawless in his ability to balance cold-hearted business with doing the right thing. He’s fearless, and he’s running a league that is taking a proactive approach in the development of international players. It’s only natural that a Silver-led NBA tackle domestic issues as well.
Emmert and Silver had interactions. In 2014, Emmert met with NBA owners to talk about the age limit. But there has yet to be a true, public summit of NBA and NCAA leadership. There needs to be one soon, a no-holds-barred, leave-your-feelings-at-home, all-ideas-welcome brainstorming session with Emmert, Silver and all of the sport’s top minds to explore what’s possible, what’s fair and what’s untenable at all levels of the sport.
Or they can sit around and wait for the other shoe to explode. Next time, the injury could be worse than Williamson’s, or the athlete could be less infatuated with pursuing a national title, or his mission could be to highlight and destroy the current system.
The message should be clear: Fix it before you’re humiliated and forced to fix it. A proactive reinvention would be far better than an unpredictable revolution.