The first 33 seconds again proves why college athletes should be paid.
Zion Williamson, the star Duke freshman who has the Knicks and other lowly teams praying they win the NBA Draft Lottery, left the Cameron Indoor Stadium floor and didn’t return after suffering a mild right knee sprain. Williamson’s left foot burst through his Nikes during the opening minute of Wednesday night’s game.
When Barack Obama, Spike Lee, Todd Gurley, Floyd Mayweather, and Ken Griffey Jr. show up to a sporting event, you know it’s a big deal. That type of star power would suggest the competing athletes are getting paid.
Yet, that wasn’t the case for Zion when he limped off the floor and headed to the locker room, or for RJ Barrett, Cam Reddish, Tre Jones, and Nas Little when North Carolina defeated Duke 88-72.
Leading up to the game, there were reports about how ticket prices for a midweek regular season college basketball game were more expensive than the admission for Super Bowl LIII. One person was said to have spent over $10,000 to get inside of a gym that holds less than 10,000 people.
Yet, every player who played in Wednesday night’s game will wake up Thursday morning without any monetary thing to show from it in their bank accounts.
“Zion Williamson is an incredible player. However, it is moments like this that remind us of the college athlete’s fragility. It is $3k just to get into Cameron and Zion doesn’t get a dime. This is a young man who is as vulnerable as he is talented, and it saddens me to no end,” tweeted ESPN insider/analyst Jordan Schultz.
Everybody got paid on Wednesday night. Except for the people who did the actual work.
That’s because Williamson, Barrett, Reddish, Jones, and Little are supposed to be content with tuition, room, board, and free Nike gear. This, even though the five freshmen from Duke and UNC are the only ones who are locks to get drafted in this summer’s NBA Draft — when they can finally make a living off their likeness and abilities.
“So Zion is out for tonight. Maybe it’s a significant injury, perhaps not. Here’s hoping it’s not. Imagine, though, if it is: how much has he accounted for, financially, for not only Duke but also ESPN and every other outlet that profits from college basketball, including us?” tweeted Raleigh News & Observer sports reporter Andrew Carter.
Last month, ESPN announced that the top-5 matchup between then-No. 4 Virginia and No. 1 Duke brought in 3,764,000 viewers, making it the most-watched college basketball game across all networks this season. By the final minutes of the game, the audience peaked to 4,980,000 viewers.
And thanks to Williamson, Barrett, Reddish, and Jones, ESPN has seen an increase of 18% in viewership for Duke games compared to last season, and that team included Marvin Bagley, Wendell Carter Jr., Grayson Allen and Gary Trent Jr. who were the second, seventh, 21st, and 37th picks in last year’s NBA Draft, respectively.
Entering Wednesday night, the top five college basketball games that have aired on ESPN this season all featured the Blue Devils and their talented foursome of NBA-bound one-and-done freshmen.
Yet, they still have nothing to show for it.
Last month, Jay Z sat courtside for a game between Duke and Pittsburgh. A few weeks later, Lebron James, Rajon Rondo, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Rich Paul (LeBron’s close friend and agent) checked out a game between the Blue Devils and Virginia.
As fans of basketball, it made sense for them to be there.
But there was also a financial incentive, given that Jay Z is the founder of the sports agency Roc Nation Sports, while Rich Paul runs Klutch Sports (LeBron’s agency.) The two mega agents both showed up to see Williamson, Barrett, and Reddish up close and personal, given that the Duke trio is projected to be selected within the first five picks of June’s draft.
And while Jay Z and Rich Paul couldn’t say anything to the players, their presence was felt.
“When he walks in, with his squad, you look over and you’re like, ‘Oh my God, that’s him,'” said Williamson about Jay Z.
But no matter who signs with what agency, none of the players are getting paid for their services in a season in which Duke, ESPN, the NCAA, CBS/Turner, and possibly Nike, are all but guaranteed to see higher profits, especially when March Madness rolls around. (Well, Nike might take a hit after Wednesday night’s happenings.)
In 2017, the NCAA, which is still somehow listed as a non-profit, crossed the billion-dollar revenue threshold. And a season after the FBI’s corruption investigation rocked the sport — in which more than 20 different schools could be involved — the college basketball world is still waiting for the other shoe to drop as there are still two more federal criminal trials to come this year.
“We obviously want to make sure that we're doing everything that we can to promote the ethics of the game," said NCAA President Mark Emmert in December. "This whole incident cast a very bad light on college basketball and we need to deal with it as effectively as we can and we're not going to have everything wrapped up by the Final Four, that's for sure, because these trials are still going to be going on."
Mind you, the phrase “waiting on the other shoe the drop” is a double entendre, seeing as how shoe companies are at the heart of the FBI’s investigation into the college basketball scandal. And during Wednesday’s game, sports business reporter Darren Rovell tweeted out copies of Nike’s standard contracts with universities that cover what should happen if a player is injured in their shoes, and how the school should try its hardest to keep that injured and unpaid student-athlete in Nikes, all while the show company doesn’t accept liability.
“We are obviously concerned and want to wish Zion a speedy recovery. The quality and performance of our products are of utmost importance. While this is an isolated occurrence, we are working to identify the issue,” Nike said in a statement, according to Rovell.
News about Williamson will be forthcoming, as his injury could be one that keeps him out a few games, or the kind that means Wednesday night was the last time we see him play until he’s in an NBA uniform next season. Coach Mike Krzyzewski said Zion’s knee is stable, and that more tests will be administered Thursday.
When it comes to the FBI’s investigation into college basketball, we won’t have any answers until the season is over.
A season in which an 18-year-old unpaid laborer named Zion Williamson became one of the biggest names in sports, and might have lost millions by playing an entire season for free.
Which is why Wednesday night wasn’t just another exciting game in the history of the Duke-UNC rivalry.
It was the smoking gun for why the NCAA is the most corrupt league in sports and why student-athletes like Williamson should be paid for their services.