Zion Williamson

USA Today

Zion’s Future

The notion of amateurism in college is a joke.

February 21, 2019 - 11:36 am

Zion going down last night was a reminder of something I talked about yesterday on the show. It cost a lot of money to get into that game last night. A lot of cash was thrown down and none of it was going to the guy they were coming to see.

And the moment his shoe blew out, that all became very real, very fast. Because there is something horribly poetic about a guy getting injured by a shoe he’s contractually obligated to wear, but not compensated for. 

If you wanted to sum up the bizarreness of college athletics in one image, it was that. The greatest player in how every many years getting hurt because of being connected to shoes that in a few months, he’d be paid 7 figures to wear. But right now, is paid nothing. 

And there’s something really weird about people reportedly paying up to ten grand to get into a game to watch him play, and his compensation is that he gets to attend college for free. 

You can’t tell me that you see that injury, in that situation, with all that money that had been paid for last night, and the hundreds of millions at stake in Zion’s future, and you still want to say: BUT HE GETS A FREE EDUCATION.

As Donovan Mitchell tweeted: Again let’s remember all the money that went into this game.... And these players get none of it.... And now Zion gets hurt... Something has to change @NCAA.

Denver Nugget Isaiah Thomas: Let these kids go straight out of HS!!! Too much on the line to be messing with college if you got a legit chance to turn pro. One injury can change somebody career, Zion sit yo ass down lol and we will be ready for you in the big boy league #lookingoutfortheplayers

Before the MRI results were even back, the conversation had started. Regardless of whether the injury meant that Zion was done for the year, should Zion be done for the year? 

Should he just shut it down now and get ready for the NBA draft? Or, does he have some obligation to his teammates to finish what he started? 

And I’m guessing that TV and radio talk shows are full of one guy after another screaming about what Zion should or shouldn’t do. 

I’ll say this: I’m not going to tell him not to play, but I’d certainly understand. If he did decide he’s shutting it down, there isn’t a single person who can fault him.

That’s the smart business decision. He’s going to be the first pick in the draft. The only thing he can do between now and then is hurt himself or hurt his draft stock. 

Not playing doesn’t show that he’s not competitive or that he doesn’t love the game of basketball. It shows that he recognizes the game of basketball is also the business of basketball. And he could be looking at hundreds of millions over the course of his career. 

And the “yeah, but you can’t put a price on a national title” argument is kind of weird. Because I think a lot of people can put a price on it. And it’s probably worth less than Zion’s potential career earnings, which is what’s at stake every time he plays for free. 

And then there’s the “yeah, but they get a free education” argument. At its best, it made sense when sports in college were like any other activity in college. When it was something that students did when they weren’t in class. 

When being a member of a sports team was roughly the same as being a member of the Latin Club or Film Club, or the Model United Nations. You know, an activity that you did with your friends for the fun of it. Not a multi-billion business. 

And I know there are a lot of you out there who are saying, I’ve got a kid in college and if getting a free ride is called getting taken advantage of, where do I sign up? 

I get it. I’m going through the college search process right now. I totally get it.

But if your kid was a member of the Debate Team and somehow that Debate Team was generating tens of millions of dollars for the school. And celebrities and former presidents were paying thousands to go see the debates, and everyone who was associated with the debate team, but wasn’t actually debating, was making bank, and your kid wasn’t getting anything for it, you might see it differently. And not only have that, but every time she stepped to the podium, she risked her future earnings, you’d probably want something for that, righted?

That’s the point. College athletics isn’t like the debate club. It hasn’t been for a long time. It is a business. A huge business. 

I’m not going to say that Zion hasn’t benefited from being at Duke. He’s playing on national television every time he steps on the floor. He was an Instagram legend before showing up on campus, but he’s on everyone’s mind now. 

Believe it or not, he might not have been the number one pick in the draft coming out of high school, but what he’s done at Duke has changed that. So he certainly has benefited from his time there. 

That’s not the argument. The argument is that he hasn’t been fairly compensated for his time. He’s taken all the risk and hasn’t been compensated for it. If he suffered a Kevin Ware or Gordon Hayward injury last night, Duke Basketball doesn’t go away. But Zion’s career might. 

And if you want to argue that there is no injury that Zion could suffer that would prevent him from being the number one pick in the draft, that what happened last night isn’t going to hurt his draft stock so he didn’t lose anything, that says more about Zion. That says that he is an outlier. 

Because most years, if the number one pick in the draft suffers a bad injury in college, he drops in the draft. Zion is just that good and just that different. 

The notion of amateurism in college is a joke. Just like saying that a free education is fair compensation is a joke. And it’s time for that to change.

And just saying that it’s too hard or too complicated to change it, isn’t good enough. There are plenty of smart people who can figure out ways for that to happen. Like the Olympic model, where athletes are compensated for their likeness. Or allowing athletes to skip college and turn pro immediately. Or any number of different approaches. But just throwing your hands up and saying it’s hard and complicated, isn’t good enough.