George Will: Madness of college hoops’ amateurism
Appropriately, during the crescendo of this college basketball season, in which the most significant event was a shoe malfunction, a lawyer whose best-known client was a pornographic actress was indicted for threatening to shrink a shoe company’s market capitalization by making allegations about the company misbehaving in the meat market for a small number of tall “student- athletes.”
Zion Williamson is a “one-and-done” superstar at Duke. There, Williamson is spending the obligatory year before becoming eligible to rake in riches in the NBA, which forbids its teams to sign players directly out of high school, thereby giving institutions of higher education a year to refine future NBA talent.
In a February game, one of Williamson’s Nike shoes blew apart. This injured him, not seriously but enough to furrow the brows of those who ponder the ethics of college athletics. They wondered: While Williamson is serving his one-year sentence as an unpaid student-athlete, helping Duke and the National Collegiate Athletic Association make millions and more than a billion, respectively, an injury could ruin his prospects as a professional. So, perhaps he should be a paid student- athlete.
Nike pays Duke serious money, but not a penny to Williamson to wear its stuff. Williamson’s defective shoe briefly knocked $1.1 billion off Nike’s market capitalization. Michael Avenatti, former lawyer for Stormy Daniels, was apparently nine times more ambitious.
He was arrested after being recorded threatening to release evidence that Nike has participated in a particular practice of sports apparel companies. They sluice money, through third parties, to “blue chip” recruits, or their families, to steer players to schools that are paid to wear the companies’ goods.
Recently, three men were convicted of fraud and conspiracy for directing recruits to Adidas schools, on the amusing theory that the schools who welcomed these players had never noticed any of the money sloshing around, and so were somehow victims. Louisiana State University reached the Sweet Sixteen without its coach, who was suspended by LSU after refusing to talk to the university about transcripts of colorful telephone conversations. The coach spoke about “a hell of a (expletive) offer” concerning prospective recruits. Conceivably, the offers were not for NCAA-permitted benefits for the athlete.
The judge in another recent case compounded the comedy, ruling that although the NCAA has no “coherent definition of amateurism,” it can continue to sharply limit financial aid to athletes because the judge accepts the NCAA’s convenient theory about “the importance to consumer demand of maintaining a distinction between college sports and professional sports.”
Rep. Mark Walker, a Republican from basketball-crazed North Carolina, has an idea: Tweak the tax code to say that “amateur sports organizations” cannot “substantially (restrict) the use of an athlete’s name, image or likeness.” So the NCAA would forfeit its tax-exempt status if it continues forbidding athletes from making money from their names.
An ordained minister and believer in redemption, perhaps Walker understands that improvement of the multibillion-dollar entertainment industry that is parasitic off educational institutions must begin by forcing it to confront its foundational hypocrisy about amateurism.
George Will is a columnist for The Washington Post and can be reached via email.