Zion Williamson injury highlights problems in US collegiate system

The Duke superstar’s injury exposes the exploitation of athletes

Zion Williamson is not your average collegiate athlete. Duke’s standout power forward, the consensus number one overall pick in the next NBA draft, is a 6-foot-seven, 285 pound colossus, for whom every square inch of our doomed earth is a trampoline. Packed arenas across the US have borne witness to his hyper-athletic style of play, even for elite college basketball. Watching Williamson play is like listening to Classic FM during take-off in a space shuttle, like reading Keats in a cyclone. His game fuses his generational physical gifts with a fluidity and grace that is incredibly compelling. He is the new poster boy of the Instagram era, his highlights populating feeds with an unprecedented regularity.

There was one such highlight, perhaps his most astounding yet, in a recent game against the University of Virginia. Receiving the ball wide open on the wing, Virginia’s De’Andre Hunter cocked back to attempt a corner three, only to have Williamson eat up nigh on 25 feet in less than two seconds and jump halfway out of the gym to emphatically swat the ball somewhere into near space orbit.

And yet many of his future peers in the NBA, as well as an even greater number outside it, are advising him to never play another game of college basketball.

This comes after Williamson suffered a scary-looking, but thankfully minor, injury early on in a recent rivalry game with the University of North Carolina. With former US president Barack Obama sitting courtside, Zion burst out of his Nike shoe and slid alarmingly on the hardcourt. There were immediate fears about the effect on his draft status in June. There are millions of dollars in salary difference between just the top 10 positions in the draft. It is this potential loss that has led so many to urge Zion to shut himself down until the NBA comes calling in the summer.

It has sparked a renewed debate about the nature of collegiate sports in the United States, which at the highest levels is a money-making behemoth on par with anything in the professional scene. Despite this, the athletes, who are the product which generates this income, receive nothing. They are forbidden even to receive gifts, regardless of how small they may be. This leads to absurd situations, such as Zion’s playing for free while his coach makes almost $9 million a year.

Tickets for the Duke game versus UNC were selling for $2,500 on the resale market. Despite the inbuilt attraction of such a high-profile game, there can be no doubt that an enormous driver of that price was the opportunity to see Zion in the flesh. Following his sneaker mishap, Nike stock has fallen by $1.1 billion. And yet Zion himself, rehabbing a sprain to his right knee, doesn’t earn a dollar. It’s not hard to see why so many, especially those who have come through this exploitative system, think he should hold out until the draft, and collect the maximum amount of money available to him as the consensus number one pick. Sports marketing expert Darren Rovell revealed in the aftermath of the injury that Zion has an insurance policy for loss of value, which would pay him $8 million, but only if he slides
past the 16th pick in the upcoming draft, which is of course an impossibility. With this in mind, the most exciting player in college basketball may indeed have played his final game. He was lucky this time, another injury may not be so minor, and a man who cannot be contained by his own shoes has a lot to lose.

Dean Hayes

Dean Hayes is a former Sport Editor of Trinity News. He is an English and History graduate.