Commentary: Zion’s fall should lift hopes for paying college athletes, but it won’t

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Anthony L. Hall is a Bahamian who descends from the Turks and Caicos Islands. He is an international lawyer and political consultant - headquartered in Washington DC - who also publishes a current events weblog, The iPINIONS Journal, at http://ipjn.com

By Anthony L Hall

Zion Williamson is Duke University’s freshman phenom. More to the point, he was on track to enter this year’s NBA Draft with professional potential and media attention not seen since LeBron James entered in 2003. Indeed, news headlines abound hailing Zion as the second coming of LeBron.

This explains why not just everyone at Duke but Basketball fans everywhere reacted with a collective gasp of worry when Zion fell.

It happened a week ago today during what was billed as the game of the NCAA season, featuring Duke against archrival North Carolina:

Former President Barack Obama was there [and] tickets for the game were reselling for more than $3,000.00 — Super Bowl prices. …

And then a mere 33 seconds into the game, on a routine play, Williamson dribbled near the foul line when his left leg buckled, his left blue-and-white Nike sneaker ripped apart at the seams and he tumbled to the floor, grabbing his right knee in pain.

(NPR, February 21, 2019)

That his Nike sneaker ripped apart was shocking enough. But that paled in comparison to the shock of watching Zion hobble off the court. Because nobody knew then if he would ever play another game in college, or play any in the NBA.

Thankfully, reports are that he suffered a mere “Grade 1 knee sprain” from which he’s expected to fully recover long before draft day.

In the meantime, though, Duke seems determined to squeeze every bit of indentured servitude out of him – the risk of career-ending injury be damned.

As it happens, I had a text exchange with my old college roommate the morning after. I suggested that the mental injury Zion suffered might cause him to end up like Derek Rose – who himself was a college phenom.

The Chicago Bulls drafted Rose as the first overall pick in 2008. But a mere left-wrist injury during his first season proved the harbinger of an “injury-filled career.” In fact, Rose has yet to live up to the potential he showed and attention he commanded when the Bulls drafted him – complete with media headlines hailing him as the second coming of Michael Jordan.

That brings me to this latest round of media hand wringing:

A freakish injury to Duke’s Zion Williamson … has instantaneously renewed a debate about the contradictions of the sport’s economic foundation, shining a harsh new light on the N.C.A.A.’s policy of amateurism and the influence of billion-dollar shoe companies.

It also raised an important question: Should Williamson ever suit up for another college game?

(The New York Times, February 21, 2019)

The unqualified answer to that question is: No! But I fear Zion’s indentured servitude is such that

  • Duke will prevail upon him to continue playing.
  • He will feel a perverse obligation to do so.

As for the debate his injury triggered, Saturday’s edition of Smerconish on CNN merits comment. Not least because it featured an interview with Joe Nocera, the Bloomberg business commentator and author of Indentured: The Inside Story of the Rebellion Against the NCAA (2016).

Host Michael Smerconish cited his book as the controlling authority on the question: Should college athletes be paid? But Nocera’s book is little more than a “Drudge Report” on the insights and observations sports commentators have been making for years.

Hell, even I preempted him with commentaries like “Student Athletes Make Billions (for Colleges) but Most Graduate Poor … and Dumb,” January 16, 2014, and “Reggie Bush Forfeits Heisman Trophy,” September 16, 2010, which includes this instructive excerpt:

___________________

There’s nothing amateur about college Football. It’s a multibillion-dollar business for Christ’s sake!

More to the point, the people generating its revenues are not the university presidents, athletic directors, or coaches who, incidentally, make millions of dollars in salary and endorsement deals. Instead, they are the poor, mostly black athletes whose raw talent colleges exploit to pack 100,000 fans into their stadiums on game day.

I have always felt that it’s tantamount to modern-day slavery for universities to recruit poor and, all too often, uneducated athletes just to play Football and not compensate them for their services, especially considering they rarely get an education. …

But this indentured servitude is made much worse by branding these poor players – who generate tens of millions for their respective universities – as cheaters for accepting a little cash on the side. Mind you, those offering the cash are often boosters just trying to make life easier for players to enable them to perform better. Not to mention that, if the NCAA were to penalize all college players who accept such gifts, there would be no college Football (or Basketball) worth watching.

The hypocrisy inherent in this is beyond shameful. Universities should be required to compensate student athletes in direct proportion to the way owners of professional Football teams compensate their players.

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All the same, I commend Nocera for adding his influential voice to clarion calls for the NBA to allow players to enter the draft straight from high school. After all, this would be tantamount to an emancipation proclamation from the indentured servitude at issue.

As things stand, the NBA requires high-school players to wait at least one year before they’re eligible. This assures the NCAA of at least one year of their play without pay, hence the infamous one-and-done trend Zion is following.

It’s just too bad the post-game talk was more about the way Coach John Calipari recruited the players on this national championship team than about the way they played. But I see nothing wrong with Calipari recruiting standout players who he knows are committed to no more than one year in college before heading to the NBA – the so-called ‘one-and-done’ trend.

(“Kentucky Wildcats Win NCAA Basketball Championship,” The iPINIONS Journal, April 3, 2012)

Still, I urge college Basketball players to do what I’ve been urging their Football counterparts to do: strike!

[S]tar players on all NCAA Division 1 Football teams [should] organize a wildcat strike this fall and demand fair compensation for the services they provide. Then let the NCAA and university presidents make the unconscionable and utterly unsustainable argument that these kids should be forced to continue generating billions in revenues for them in exchange for nothing more than a college degree that, in most cases, is not worth the paper it’s written on.

(“Death Penalty for University of Miami Hurricanes,” The iPINIONS Journal, August 23, 2011)  

Trust me, this is the only way to get the NCAA to end this indentured servitude and pay college athletes commensurate with the worth of their labors.

Related commentaries:
Reggie Bush forfeits
Kentucky
Death penalty
Graduate poor and dumb

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