Shawn Windsor: Zion Williamson injury reminds us the NCAA is a farce
He’s got a first name that crackles almost as much as his game, rooted in biblical history, which roughly translates to “highest point,” a fitting description of Duke’s freshman sensation, Zion Williamson.
He’s the biggest college star in years, a next-generation blend of power, size and immortal hops, and when he took the floor Wednesday night at Cameron Indoor Arena, he had an easy view of Barack Obama, Ken Griffey Jr., Spike Lee and assorted current and former athletes and actors.
For once, Williamson wasn’t the biggest name in the house. But he quickly became the biggest story.
About 33 seconds into the Duke-North Carolina game that had fetched several thousand dollars for the choicest seats, Williamson blew out his left shoe, slipped as a result, and hurt his knee. Just like that, the center of the sports world fell silent.
Duke’s coach, Mike Kryzyzewski, said his superstar suffered a mild sprain. That’s the good news for Williamson.
Maybe he’ll be back for the NCAA Tournament. Maybe he won’t — it’s too soon to tell. Whatever happens, the Blue Devils’ title chances aren’t as certain as they were.
Yet that’s the least of the fallout after the game. Almost immediately after Williamson went down, several NBA players took to Twitter either to encourage the 6-foot-7-inch, 280-pound forward to forgo the rest of the season or to blast the NBA rule keeps players like him from turning pro out of high school.
His injury didn’t just throw an unwelcome spotlight on Nike, the company that made Williamson’s ruptured shoe. It reminded us that college basketball’s most electric moments are often built on injustice.
Or absurdity, if you prefer.
Here was a game that had been hyped by ESPN for nearly a month, that drew celebrities and a former president, that turned into an A-list event because of Williamson’s transcendent talent. He was the reason for the buzz. He was the reason for the anticipation.
And what did he get for creating the most hyped-up night of sport since the Super Bowl?
Nothing but a blown-out shoe and a tinge in his billion-dollar knee.
Yeah, he’s on scholarship at a prestigious university. And if you think a year’s worth of free tuition and boarding equates to the revenue generated Wednesday night, then you’ve been staring at sepia-toned photos of crew cuts and short shorts for too long.
The system is a farce. You know it. Coaches know it. Agents and scouts and general managers know it. Shoe companies certainly know it and take advantage of it by paying schools millions of dollars so that players like Williamson become soaring, awe-inspiring human billboards.
Condoleeza Rice knows it. And didn’t pull punches last year when she sat on the Knight Commission and railed against the game’s inequity in an editorial published in USA Today.
Among the former Secretary of State’s suggestions?
“Ending one and done in men’s basketball and the charade that it is. An athlete who is ready to go directly to the NBA or to the developmental league should do so. No one should be forced to go to college.”
It wasn’t hard to think of this watching the glitterati cram Wednesday night into tiny Cameron Indoor Arena, several thousand geeked-up souls ready to be entertained.
Many of them paid staggering amounts to bear witness. The coaches got paid to witness, too, and to hawk a shoe companies’ accoutrements under the cover of higher education.
How much longer must this go on?
Hopefully not long. The NBA is considering abandoning its one-and-done rule. This won’t solve everything, of course, but it’s a start.
On top of that, the players that choose college should be able to earn off their likeness. This isn’t to say they should get paid.
But it is to say that college basketball must change. If it doesn’t, Rice argued, the current structure will collapse.
It took an otherworldly star’s collapse to remind us.