Zion Madness is upon us, and I’m here to answer all the key questions about the big guy with the exploding shoes as he gets ready for his moment in the spotlight.
First, is it fair that Zion Williamson does not get paid given all of the profits his temporary university, Duke, derives from his presence?
Second, shouldn’t he be able to sign a shoe deal? How else is the kid supposed to afford a pizza?
Isn’t it an unfair restraint of trade that he is forced to spend at least a term and a half in college before skedaddling to the NBA?
My answers are no, no, it’s not my problem and yes.
This stuff comes up often, but it seems even more oppressive in the age of Zion, the latest in a long line of can’t miss prospects whose sheer brilliance shows us the limits of fairness in a society awash in ESPNs and free shoes. After all, once the Zion is safely ensconced in the cocoon of the NBA he almost assuredly will be more successful than previous top picks Michael Olowokandi, Kwame Brown, Andrew Bogut, Andrea Bargnani, Greg Oden, Anthony Bennett and Markelle Fultz. Won’t he?
Anyway, let’s get down to cases before I bloviate my way into a hernia.
Paying college players and allowing them to strike merchandising deals are horrifically bad ideas. Amid all of the bribery and corruption and insanity in college sports do people seriously want to ADD money to the pot? And why do people perceive that the value of a four-year education, up to about $200,000 for Oregon State and perhaps $100,000 more for places such as Duke and Stanford, is so paltry that salaries are required? And how is a grand a year in pizza ... dough ... going to be a game-changer for the Zion?
If universities such as, say, Duke or Oregon State, want to provide a little extra pizza money to students by changing the “cost of attendance” they could do so without much pain. Is it the best way for said institution to spend its money? Debatable. And devising a system to do it for athletes only would require contortions of circus caliber. Do you pay a rower the same as the Zion? Is it OK for Alabama to pay more than other schools because, well, they’re Alabama and you’re not? How will it keep people from turning pro early?
First grotesque assumption that must be discredited: Major colleges and universities are awash in profits from sports. True, there is a lot of revenue floating around, but very little profit. That’s because universities spend all of the revenue on programs that do not produce much revenue. And they have to offer such programs because of Title IX. And it’s easier to legislate how colleges spend their money than how ESPN and Nike earn -- and spend -- theirs.
In fairness many fine universities, Stanford comes to mind, spend money on an impressive swath of athletic programs because they think they add value for their students as extracurricular activities. These universities also offer activities such as music, robotics, theater, campus politics and community and civic engagement. Somehow, over time, the athletic piece of this activities puzzle became worth billions of dollars. Which caused problems.
Second grotesque assumption: That Zion Williamson is a college student. He is not. He is a fraud. He is a carpetbagger. He is a living, breathing symbol of those “problems” caused by sports becoming an industry. Lots of other things have happened, too. Often, those who give money to colleges' general funds also like sports. And those who give money to colleges for academic reasons tend to also do so for athletic reasons. You wind up with a larger total wad of donor money if you have high-level intercollegiate athletics. And studies have shown your applicant pool tends to rise in quality as well. Nobody loses, right? Wrong!
You’re renting space to pituitary cases. You are flouting your own admissions policies to admit students who have no intention of making it to spring break in their freshman year.
One of the challenges of this system is that Duke has nothing in its curriculum that will help the Zion achieve his career goals. If the Zion wanted to be a doctor, teacher, attorney, accountant, scientist, engineer, social worker or … journalist, he would need to get a degree, sometimes more than one, to get there. Thus, one easy solution to the one-and-done issue is for pro sports leagues to require a bachelor’s degree for those who want to participate. While the anarchist in me loves the potential chaos inherent in such a system … I also can see its impracticalities.
Clearly, a college education is not required to thrust a ball through a hoop. One is more necessary if one wants to add up a column of figures, design autonomous vehicles, build a shopping list, defend the unjustly accused, teach children or cure cancer. Which makes it troubling that individuals, such as the Zion, who engage in activities that contain so little cultural value, are revered so. And the legendary Coach K, who used to have a bit of cachet because all of his players graduated, now graduates practically no one but his student managers.
And what, pray tell, does the NCAA have to do with all of this? I will try to be brief. Let’s go back to basics. The NCAA became necessary because schools cheated. Is the NCAA a bloated bureaucracy awash in contradictions? Yes. But if it wasn’t there schools would cheat even more. And please note that since the NCAA is a goulash of “member institutions,” said institutions always have the power to change things.
Exhibit A: The contract of Oregon State men’s basketball coach Wayne Tinkle (see the website for the full text). I am referencing the original one, signed in 2014, not the one that was extended in 2016, but the principles, for want of a better expression, remain the same.
In year 6 of his first deal (it’s clearly far higher now) Tinkle was due to earn more than $1 million for doing radio interviews and outfitting his teams in certain types of shoes. Does this seem to you like that should be the going rate for such services (and you can be sure Duke's Coach K is at double or triple the Tinkle level)? No? Doesn’t seem so to me either. Remember all those stories of Oklahoma football players being paid $25,000 per summer for washing cars at auto dealers? Seems to me that Tinkle is at least as overpaid.
And, thus, a tipping point was reached, crossed, and recrossed. And smashed to bits. And an opportunity was missed. Maybe if someone at the NCAA … or one of its member institutions, said, no, ... things might have wound up different. Maybe the whole thing wouldn’t have wound up awash in cash. And corruption. Maybe. But it did. Tinkle will get $2.2M in 2021-22. And Nick Saban is pushing $9M at Alabama. That's a lot of free shoes and banal interviews. Not good optics.
Society, ultimately, is a product of the things that we believe in … and spend money on. I just wish we would steer those passions — and cash — toward things of greater value.