Duke’s Zion Williamson suffered a knee injury when his shoe burst just 33 seconds into Wednesday night’s much-anticipated matchup with North Carolina, sending college basketball’s best and most exciting player to the locker room and rendering the rest of the game something of a hollow sideshow before it even really began.
Duke-Carolina is, by most accounts, the best rivalry in college basketball. This season’s first edition was so highly anticipated in large part because of Williamson ― the soaring freshman forward who takes over games in ways that often make it look like he’s broken basketball and the laws of physics.
That he left the game so soon robbed everybody of something ― the fans who’d paid top dollar to attend, the millions watching on TV, former President Barack Obama and every other celebrity who’d flown into Durham, and maybe, if Williamson doesn’t return to the court for Duke ever again, the world of college basketball and Blue Devil fans hoping for another national title.
But none of that should overshadow the real victim here, which is of course the now-injured superstar athlete who was playing in a basketball game he didn’t have to be ― and never should have been ― a part of.
Williamson was one of the top-ranked college basketball recruits in the nation in the high school class of 2018. Had he been eligible, he would have certainly been selected early in the 2018 NBA draft without playing a minute of college basketball. In a rational world, Williamson could have been playing professional basketball last night, in a league where the risk of injury at least comes with the guarantee of a paycheck.
Instead, he was forced to spend a year in college, because since 2005, the NBA has restricted players from entering its draft until they are 19 years old or a full year removed from high school. The age limit, collectively bargained as it is with the NBA’s players union, is perfectly legal. That doesn’t make it logical or remotely reasonable ― it is, in effect, nothing more than a protectionist mechanism for the league, which gets a free year to evaluate players while benefiting from the marketing boost they get from playing for high-profile colleges. (It’s broken even if you take its stated purpose at face value, anyway.)
And when it comes to money: Williamson, at Duke, isn’t allowed to make much, even though he’s possibly worth at least $1 million (and maybe more) to Duke. For that he can thank the NCAA’s antiquated and arbitrary “amateurism” rules, which restrict college athletes from receiving much of any compensation beyond the full cost of attending a university like Duke, Carolina, Kentucky or anywhere else. This, too, is illogical and pointless ― the rhetoric the NCAA churns out about its sports being part of a broader academic mission, a puritan amateur endeavor, a learning experience that would be sullied by players sharing equitably in the money they generate is mostly, and always has been, legalese meant to obscure the basic fact that major college athletes are by any realistic legal definition employees of the universities they represent.
It doesn’t have to be like this, and the solutions are remarkably simple.
The NBA and its union have already said that they are planning to scrap the age limit at some point in the near future. Most likely, though, that’s not going to happen until 2022 at the earliest, even though there’s no reason to wait that long.
The NCAA, in an ideal world, could own up to the fact that it has so thoroughly bent the definition of amateurism in an effort to defend itself as to render the term utterly meaningless and reform itself in a way that treats the players it depends on like the employees they are. College sports will still exist and still make everyone involved gobs of money.
And given that multimillion-dollar businesses don’t have much history of willingly and adequately protecting workers on their own, the federal government could force the NCAA to do it instead. Federal judges could stop treating amateurism as a sacrosanct institution that must be protected except through minimalist and incremental alterations. The Department of Justice and FBI could stop conducting wrongheaded, whack-a-mole investigations into college basketball corruption that treat these universities and the NCAA as victims, and turn their attention to the extremely real possibility that the schools and the NCAA are themselves violating American antitrust laws ― as multiple federal lawsuits have suggested and as courts themselves have already determined.
Williamson, in all likelihood, will be fine. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski called the injury a “mild knee sprain” after the game, and Williamson’s status as the first overall pick in June’s NBA draft isn’t (yet) in jeopardy because of a minor knock. There are those who will argue that Williamson’s year at Duke has benefited him “tremendously,” and it possibly has.
That, though, is beside the point, because even a mild injury is a clear reminder that the system as it exists is set up in a way that makes Williamson and players like him the only ones who are forced to absorb any risk to their futures and their future livelihood ― a point the mother of former Duke player Wendell Carter Jr. made just last year.
For top players like Carter and Williamson who could easily go pro and make millions of dollars straight out of high school, college basketball is “100 percent risk and it’s 100 percent negative to your business objective,” Kylia Carter told The Undefeated last March. “It’s not putting you in any better position for achieving your business objective, which is reaching the NBA.”
Before Wednesday’s game, Williamson said that even if the NBA’s age limit didn’t exist, he would have chosen to spend a year at Duke. There are millions of reasons to doubt that; either way, it’s a choice he should have had the freedom to make and one that top basketball recruits want. And the only reason he didn’t have it is because everyone who might feel victimized by Williamson leaving a college basketball game 33 seconds after it started has either forgotten or never cared who the potential victims of this rigged system are, and always will be.