For those that may not be familiar, Zion Williamson is the current “next big thing” in basketball. The 6–7, 285 lbs freshman plays for perennial powerhouse Duke Blue Devils, and was set to feature in Wednesday night’s game. With one of the best rivalries in sports tipping off against the UNC Tar Heels, prime time TV time slot, and luminaries including former President Obama in attendance, it was must watch and a hot ticket.
At least for 33 seconds. Then this happened:
As a visual, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen that happen in a basketball game before. As a metaphor for college athletics and college basketball in particular, it’s amazing.
For his part, Williamson was never under more of a spotlight than Wednesday night, when the front-runner to be taken №1 overall in June’s NBA draft squared off for the first time this season with Duke’s arch-nemesis, North Carolina.
Unfortunately for Zion Williamson and college basketball fans everywhere — and very unfortunately for Nike — Williamson didn’t last long against the Tar Heels, because he was forced from the game in the first minute with a knee injury. The mishap occurred as the 285-pound forward was planting his left foot to pivot — and his shoe exploded.
While the episode only added to the burgeoning, Chuck Norris-esque myth-making surrounding Williamson, the inability of the shoe to stand up to the rigors of being used by the 6–7 forward made for a very, very bad look for Nike.
The injury is categorized as a “sprain” and hopefully isn’t serious, but to many folks the incident is the latest flashpoint in the ongoing debate about the “amateur” athletics of the NCAA. While the internet is going to have great fun at Nike’s expense over their shoe coming apart, it also brings more attention to the fact that shoe deals and basketball are inseparable. Remember this commercial, and tag line of “gotta be the shoes,” delivered by Spike Lee, who was also in attendance at Cameron Indoor last night:
But the shoes are just part of the story.
Why was Zion Williamson at Duke, wearing Nikes, and playing for “free” in the first place, some ask.
The debate immediately rose on the “one and done rule” forcing players either overseas or into a sham year of college that is really equivalent to an extended semester. That NBA rule might be dying as that league strives to provide it’s own feeder system, but for now it is what it is. Also, the prospect of a player getting nothing, but potentially losing out on his own payday because of equipment he has to wear due to multi-million dollar contracts with the schools will bring another round of debate on compensating players, the unfairness of NCAA amateur athletics, and all sorts of other concerns and issues.
The sport spent much of last year dealing with and FBI investigation into the incestuous relationship between coaches, players, schools, and shoe companies, resulting in splash headlines, some firings including Rick Pitino, and…..
Not much else. Nor will there be, as explained by The Ringer’s Mark Titus:
The bottom line is that amateur prospects have economic value, and shoe companies and big-time college basketball programs have plenty of resources to compete for their services. Until one of those things changes — or until the shoe companies and coaches are no longer incentivized to pay players — dirty recruiting is going to continue. It really is that simple. That’s why the real issue facing the NCAA isn’t about this batch of coaches, players, and programs that may or may not have gotten swept up in the current scandal. It’s about the inherently flawed system that is destined to continue to fail. Never mind this panel that’s supposed to come in August. What is Emmert doing to fix that?
The answer, as we all already know, is nothing. I don’t even say that from a cynical point of view. I sympathize with the NCAA more than most, which is to say that I’m a sucker who longs for the good old days and am therefore willing to at least hear out Emmert and his colleagues when they make a statement or decision that isn’t well-received by the public. But any changes made by the NCAA will be pointless if they don’t address the root problem. And the only two ways to do that are to find a way to stifle the revenue big-time college basketball programs generate and/or find a way to regulate the under-the-table payments to recruits by giving them a share of the revenue. The former isn’t even worth addressing, because if you think that there is any chance on God’s green earth that coaches, athletic directors, and university presidents are going to willingly stop stuffing their pockets with every last dime they can get their hands on, well, I’m not sure what to tell you. As for the latter, Emmert has remained steadfast in his belief that NCAA athletes should not be compensated, and rightfully so. As much as the general public is clamoring for college athletes to be paid, doing so would be a direct contradiction of the first core value of the NCAA (“… a commitment to the collegiate model of athletics in which students participate as an avocation”). I’m not saying that players aren’t entitled to their fair cut of the money they help bring in. I’m just saying that asking the NCAA to be the one to set up that system up is like asking the Catholic Church to accept the tenets of Scientology. It would be institutional suicide.
Which will probably be the pattern for Zion Williamson and his destroyed Nike shoe moment. It will be the latest log on an already raging fire, and probably won’t be the direct catalyst to wide-sweeping change. But who knows? Visuals are powerful things sometimes, and perhaps enough people tuned in for 33 seconds only to be disappointed and shaking their heads. Missing out on seeing a prime athlete perform because of a shoe might stick in peoples minds longer than we think, and provoke some harder questions of the sport, and the system as a whole.
Or maybe it was just the shoes. Gotta be the shoes. Right?