Columnist

When Zion Williamson’s foot burst through that sneaker just 30 seconds into the Duke-North Carolina game, he blew the seams off the whole deal. He exploded all the sophistry by the pocket-liners, the NCAA committeemen who make fortunes from their cut of TV and Nike apparel contracts, who skim the sweat straight off Williamson’s back. All you could think, when he hit the floor and grabbed at his sprained right knee, was: That’s what they all get for turning him into an unpaid billboard.

Exposure and mortification are what they deserve for cheapening a freshman year at Duke into nothing but predatory lending. This is what happens when everyone gets paid but the guy who is really earning the money. If Zion Williamson were allowed to be paid like he damn well should be by Nike, a faulty sneaker would not be quite so future-threatening, because, see, he was getting paid to wear it. It’s all very straightforward and simple. Pay him. But the men with no fingerprints won’t permit it, those athletic directors and presidents who have subverted college athletics into a rake-off while pretending to govern them.

When the sole separated from the shoe, it all became clear. The NCAA has managed to turn a Duke education into a risk that a talented kid just can’t afford to take.

What does that tell you? What does it say about the degradation of the NCAA, that it has made college so profitless for great athletes that it’s just not worth pursuing?

Scottie Pippen was right: Williamson needs to walk away now. He is the biggest prospect since LeBron James, and the NCAA has nothing to offer him. All it can do is take from him, steal his likeness and jeopardize millions of his future income.


Duke's Zion Williamson sits on the floor following an injury in Wednesday night’s game against North Carolina. (Gerry Broome/AP)

“I think he’s locked up the biggest shoe deal. I think he’s definitely going to be the No. 1 pick. I think he’s done enough for college basketball that it’s more about him personally,” Pippen said presciently on ESPN back in January. “I would shut it down. I would stop playing because I feel he could risk a major injury that could really hurt his career.”

Tickets to that Duke-North Carolina game were selling for more than $4,000 for the good seats. The athletic directors and ticket managers got theirs, and so did the scalpers. ESPN featured the game in prime time, and former president Barack Obama and Spike Lee were all over the screen at courtside, so the networks and sponsors got theirs.

Duke Athletic Director Kevin White, a member of the NCAA oversight and basketball committees, certainly got his: He is reputed to be the highest-salaried athletic director in the country at $1.4 million a year, one of 17 athletic directors who make more than $1 million a year and one of 50 who make more than $500,000, according to USA Today’s database. ACC Commissioner John Swofford really got his: He rides on the backs of athletes to the tune of $3 million a year.

And, of course, Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski and North Carolina Coach Roy Williams got theirs, multimillions in salary and apparel contracts. That, you don’t mind so much. They sweat and stress on the sidelines and take the public hits for losses or improprieties and have discernible talent, unlike those men with no fingerprints. There is a market for Krzyzewski and Williams, no matter who is on their rosters.

But without the Zion Williamsons, where is the market for a Kevin White?

Think about it. What is a college athletic director worth, without great athletes willing to serve as unpaid labor? Where else would he even be employable? Maybe the U.S. Olympic Committee — the only other organization that steals athlete sweat like this.

The one person who wasn’t getting paid by Nike at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Wednesday night was the one guy who most deserved it — who commanded those ratings and ticket prices. Instead he damaged his knee because the NCAA committeemen, those walking deodorant commercials, consistently refuse to alter the rules and give college athletes the right to explore the free market and earn income from their likenesses. As Krzyzewski once put it, that’s “the opportunity to max out — like anyone else in our country — what talent will give you.”

The irony here is that their pure greed may have finally become self-defeating. Williamson’s gasp-inducing close call on the court probably will cause the NBA to lower its age limit, something it reportedly proposed to the union long before Wednesday night. That means future players with Williamson’s ability won’t have any incentive at all to enroll in a Duke and adorn the NCAA landscape.

If the NCAA would give up its decades-long clench-fistedness, its mean-spirited court battles to control the earning ability of athletes, the Zion Williamsons would have major incentive to enter the collegiate system not just for one year but for multiple years. By all accounts, Williamson, a good student who came out of a Spartanburg, S.C., high school that sends all of its grads to college, is not just a guy who is walking through his university experience.

Instead the NCAA has made it too unworth it. If you’re a 17-year-old or his parents and you saw that injury, why would you willingly enter the NCAA maw? Why on earth would a great young player commit to playing collegiately under the current circumstances if he could go straight to the NBA? Because he wants to do his part to make sure Kevin White and John Swofford can order from the top shelf?