Last week, the number one player in the country and top 3 draft pick (#1 in my book) had the worst of the worst happen to him. In the first minute of the biggest rivalry in college basketball, Zion Williamson hurt his knee by busting through his Nike shoe.
If the Nike burst and he got another pair and continued playing, there would be no issue.
But no, he tweaked his knee. He left the game, to not return.
As a former athlete who has written extensively about paying athletes, I think this was the wake-up college basketball needed. If you look at every piece of progressive legislation in the past, it all started with one thing: A discussion. A discussion from both sides around the topic, looking at all points, and eventually making decisions which will affect thousands, sometimes millions of lives.
Since I graduated college nearly 10 years ago, progress has been made. I heard that in the SEC they are providing athletes a few hundred dollars per month. I heard they're helping athletes a little more than they were when I graduated, and no matter how little, it's still progress.
But when the #1 college basketball player in America goes down on live television, the discussion starts again. Should he sit? Should he play? According to Charles Barkley, he should stay in college for 3 more years because that's what he did in 1984. According to him, Zion is an athlete, and athletes play ball, so he's effectively saying "Shut up and Dribble". Where have we heard that before?
The opposite side of it is "Oh he's going to be a millionaire soon so just sit the rest of the season." That's easy for the talking heads on the shows to say who haven't played a minute of an organized sport in their lives. The thing they don't understand is that athletes are warriors, and just quitting to get paid in 6 months, well, that's just unheard of to an athlete who's been fighting and working his butt off every day for the past 18-20 years of their lives.
So where does that leave us? Does Zion quit and not play the rest of the year? I brought that up to someone and it reminded me of someone: Lenny Cooke. If you know the name, you know the name. If you don't, there is a documentary about him. He was better than Lebron James in high school. Instead of playing his final year of high school, he went to some random prep school during his senior year, didn't play, and then didn't even get drafted. He bounced around different teams, until he quit basketball for good, never making the NBA. One year of not playing competitive basketball completely altered his career trajectory.
The Zion situation has raised so many questions which we are finally discussing again, yet the biggest question is if any changes will be made. Will the large shoe companies stop giving the colleges shoes for the athletes (who don't get paid), which may or may not explode again mid-game? Probably not. Will the NBA finally let players go back to going straight to the NBA from high school? Yes, I think next year. Will Zion play another game for Duke, even risking injury and his whole career to play for the "brotherhood of Duke University"? Yes, of course he will. When he got poked in the eye earlier in the year and had to sit out the rest of the half because he couldn't see straight, we just chalked that up to him playing hard and a freak accident. This time, yes it was another freak accident, but a tweaked knee could have been a torn ACL. Will he get injured another time this year in a freak play, putting money in the pockets of everyone around him, but, oh no, if he signs an autograph for $10, he'll be suspended for 3 games? To be determined...
Yet the palpable hypocrisy of the NCAA was in full force on February 20th at Cameron Indoor Stadium. The question now is will we learn from it and change, or keep doing what we're doing while risking the careers of our "beloved" student-athletes.