fb-pixel Skip to main content

Zion Williamson isn’t a student-athlete. He’s an employee of Coach K Inc.

Duke's Zion Williamson sprained his right knee when the sneaker on his left foot gave out on Wednesday.GERRY BROOME/ASSOCIATED PRESS/Associated Press

Zion Williamson’s brush with near career-altering catastrophe is a reminder that like the defective sneaker that contributed to the Duke star’s knee injury, the college basketball construct needs to be ripped apart and exposed as defective.

It shouldn’t take the presumptive No. 1 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft sitting on the Cameron Indoor Stadium court clutching his sprained right knee to recognize that basketball’s feeder system is faulty.

Players such as Williamson take all the risk and do all the work in a prescribed gap year between high school hoops and the NBA while others profit off their talent. In the wake of the injury Williamson suffered on Wednesday against North Carolina, the question is not whether he should sit out the rest of the season and preserve his NBA earning potential or return and continue his domination of college basketball for the benefit of the Blue Devils. It’s why does he have to choose at all? Why does Williamson have to choose between letting down his teammates and making sure he can get compensated for his LeBron-like talent? He shouldn’t.

Enjoying college sports is about the willful suspension of disbelief, probity, and capitalism. Duke’s dunking machine is one of the biggest draws in sports right now. Zion is a one-name, force-of-nature phenom. He is a “SportsCenter” fixture, routinely leading the program. Thanks to the Zion Effect, tickets for the Duke-UNC game exceeded $10,650 and the lowest-priced ticket was $2,500, according to ESPN. LeBron James, former president Barack Obama, and movie director Spike Lee have attended his games this season. He boosts ratings, ticket prices, and interest in college basketball, but doesn’t reap any of the monetary benefits because he’s an NCAA indentured servant . . . uh, amateur.


Spare me the sanctimonious and specious argument that Williamson and the other members of one of the most highly touted freshman classes since Michigan’s famed Fab Five are being compensated with a free education. Eye roll. Or that they’re so lucky to learn the game from legendary Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski. One year of college classes and Coach K’s tutelage is not equitable compensation for Williamson or fellow Duke potential lottery picks RJ Barrett and Cam Reddish. The same goes for point guard Tre Jones, who could also go in the first round.


Williamson isn’t a student-athlete at Duke. He is an employee of Coach K Inc., plain and simple. He’s not some college kid who can just schedule classes whenever he likes and join any club on campus that his heart desires. Please. His entire college existence is built around playing basketball for the Blue Devils. He is undercompensated with a college education that everyone knows he has no intention of completing at this time. Others can exploit Willliamson’s cult-of-personality popularity for profit, but he’s not allowed to.

Williamson’s knee gave way, but he’s subject to an unforgiving system. His talent is being leased at a fixed, below-market rate via a system fixed in favor of the vast college basketball industrial complex, a system that rewards coaches, athletic directors, rights-holders, and the NCAA far more than it does talents such as Williamson.

After his harrowing injury, Williamson doesn’t even have the right to switch to another brand of shoes. His AAU team was sponsored by Adidas. Duke is a Nike school. Coach K is a Nike vicar, spreading the gospel of the swoosh. Both the school and Krzyzewski are handsomely paid for putting the players in Nikes. There is even a building on Nike’s corporate campus that is named after Krzyzewski, the Mike Krzyzewski Fitness Center. It features a statue of Coach K.


Williamson gets free Nike gear, but if he turns around and tries to sell any of it the NCAA will be all over him like a PETA protester on a celebrity in a mink coat.

Williamson shouldn’t even be playing college basketball. The 6-foot-7-inch, 285-pound manchild already has an NBA body and game. He could play in the league right now physically, but legally he’s not allowed to, prohibited by the NBA’s ban on players going straight from high school to the league.

It’s silly when Kentucky coach and one-and-done purveyor John Calipari starts comparing college players to Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. But the NBA is complicit in the exploitation of precocious talents such as Williamson, due to its age limit of 19, enacted in 2006. It’s not solely the creation of the odious college basketball industrial complex.

Kids that have no real interest in or intention of getting a college degree are conscripted into college basketball only because it’s the next rung on the basketball ladder to the pros. That’s the effect of the NBA’s age limit, which blocks players from going straight from high school to the NBA Draft and compels them to go to college for a year. The NBA is funneling players into what is essentially a free minor league.


Luckily, NBA commissioner Adam Silver has seen the light. The league is proposing to allow high schoolers back into the draft by lowering the age limit to 18, starting in 2022. The NBA is also adapting its actual minor league, the G-League, to accommodate promising players who want to continue their basketball education without the ruse of getting a college education.

Starting this fall, the G-League will offer one-year, $125,000 contracts to elite high school players, a much-needed and much fairer alternative to the one-and-done custom. So, the next Zion Williamson can decide whether he wants the adulation that comes from being one of Dick Vitale’s diaper dandies lionized on national television or the compensation from playing for the Agua Caliente Clippers or the Sioux Falls Skyforce. There will be a choice in how the gap year is spent.

If this professional path program becomes a popular alternative it could actually help the college game by restoring roster stability. College coaches will lose their monopoly and five-star hired guns, but they’ll regain some of their sanity, not having to reassemble teams all the time.

It also might spur the college game to start properly compensating some of its stars. Admittedly, that approach carries complications and potential pratfalls from creating more of a divide between the haves and have-nots to potential Title IX violations.

Whatever Williamson decides to do moving forward should come sans criticism. If he wants to chase a national championship with the top-ranked Blue Devils, so be it. If he decides to shut it down and protect himself for the next level, a la Ohio State football player Nick Bosa, who elected to end his college career after suffering a core muscle injury, you can’t blame him.


It’s his choice. But exposing himself to injuries such as the one he suffered Wednesday without getting paid a dime wasn’t. He had no choice there. Williamson is just the latest product riding the conveyor belt of basketball’s broken assembly line.

Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at cgasper@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.