Zion Williamson is the most dynamic, explosive NBA prospect to come on the scene since a high school kid from Akron named LeBron James. He is bigger, stronger and faster than not only his peers at Duke but his elders in the NBA. He’s 18, with a future brighter than the Northern Lights.
That’s what made what the shock of what happened last night cause even the most jaded basketball scribe to lose their breath. In the first minute of a prime time ESPN matchup between Zion’s Duke Blue Devils and their arch rival the North Carolina Tar Heels, Zion’s Nike sneaker imploded. Literally. The shoe simply tore in half as Zion made a sharp lateral pivot.
As luminaries like President Barack Obama and LeBron looked on, Zion’s knee then savagely bent in a direction that neither God nor biology ever intended. The crowd, some in seats that cost more than Super Bowl tickets, collectively gasped. Listed initially as a knee sprain, we will surely know more about the extent of the damage in the days ahead.
Faster than Zion himself running a fast break, Nike was in damage control mode, issuing the following statement: “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.”
Isolated occurrence or not, the irony was stunning. Nike pays Duke University and their coach Mike Krzyzewski (otherwise known as Coach K) millions of dollars to outfit their students and advertise their products. The swoosh-adorned players get bupkis except the privilege of being billboards for a multinational sneaker conglomerate. It’s a theater of the absurd, exploitation writ large, and now it threatens the future of a titanic talent.
The injury itself raises the question about why Zion was playing at all. Why risk what could potentially be a billion dollar career to play a college game where the beneficiaries are all on the sidelines? The answer lies in the ruthlessly unfair “one and done” policy of the NBA — in collusion with the NCAA — where players must wait a full year out of high school before entering the NBA draft.
The NCAA benefits from this structure because they get a year of top talent — talent that stops even the pretense of attending class after their championship tournament in March — to market, wear their brands and attract ratings.
It’s particularly profitable come March Madness time, when the NCAA makes 89% of its annual revenue. The NBA loves this system because top high school talent gets exposure and brand affiliation through their schools, psyching up fan bases of teams that are in the cellar, to have hope for next year. Already teams are tanking to have a better chance to draft Williamson, known as “not tryin’ for Zion.”
What do the players get? Not even crumbs off the table. We live in a country where you can fight in wars and vote but cannot play in the NBA. It’s a ridiculous, outdated system and, if nothing else, perhaps this injury will wake the NBA and the players union up so they can agree on fairness, link arms and say no to the exploitation of the NBA. It’s time for a change. Call it the Zion Rule and end one and done.
If one and done does not end, I hope Zion and his teammates are paying attention to a bill advancing through the Maryland statehouse that would give NCAA athletes the right to unionize. Like grad student unions, such a structure would allow them to collectively bargain fair wages, practice time and provide a check on faulty equipment…like an imploding shoe. If Zion Williamson’s injury is minor and he is fit to play in the March Madness tournament, here is hoping that he just says no and sits out the entire spectacle in the name of his health and his future.
If he does decide to play, it would be remarkable if he refused to take the court unless the Coach Ks of this sclerotic world were willing to talk union. Zion’s ability to attract eyeballs is so immense, he could just be the person they finally at long last would have to listen to, and that would be a legacy greater than any dunk.