Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 24, 2019

The One Debate Zion’s Injury Should Renew

With the first day of March approaching college basketball’s regular season is starting to wind down. Selection Sunday, when the participants in this year’s men’s NCAA Division I tournament will be announced, is just three weeks away. Between now and then are the final few games of each team’s conference schedule, followed by season-ending tournaments which represent the last chance for an unlikely squad to get hot at the right time and claim an automatic bid by scoring a couple of upsets and seizing a conference crown.

The last few days have reminded fans of how college hoops can always serve up the unexpected, something that we will no doubt see more of once the mayhem of March gets underway. Wednesday evening there was Mississippi State winning at Georgia with help from one of the home team’s fans. With just half a second on the clock, State’s Quinndary Weatherspoon was at the free throw line with a chance to put his team in front. He missed the shot, but as he released the ball a small stuffed animal came flying out of the stands onto the court, tossed by one of the Georgia faithful. While it’s not at all clear that the projectile distracted Weatherspoon, the officials called a technical foul on Georgia. Given another chance, the senior guard made the free throw that secured the 68-67 victory.

Then on Saturday the Georgia Bulldogs were spectators when eight Ole Miss players took a knee during the national anthem to protest a pro-Confederacy rally that was taking place on the university’s Oxford campus, only a few hundred feet away from the arena where the game against Georgia was about to take place. Ole Miss head coach Kermit Davis said after his team won, 72-71, that “this was all about the hate groups that came to our community and tried to spread racism and bigotry.” He added that he “respected” his players’ action, which was a decidedly different tune that Davis sung when he was hired prior to the start of this season. At his introductory press conference Davis had, without prompting, made it clear that he would not tolerate kneeling during the anthem.

But without question the strangest event on a college hardcourt in recent days came at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, North Carolina Wednesday night, in a game that garnered far more attention than the contest between Mississippi State and Georgia three hundred miles to the southwest in Athens. That was where the ACC showdown between top-ranked Duke and number eight North Carolina was taking place. The rivalry between the Blue Devils and the Tarheels is legendary enough to attract a huge following at any time, but this game drew extra notice in part because the first of two regular season meetings was coming so late in the conference schedule, but mostly because of the presence of Zion Williamson, Duke’s preternaturally talented freshman forward.

What no one could have foreseen was that just thirty seconds into the contest, while some fans at Cameron were still trying to find their seats, Williamson went down with an injury that was later diagnosed as a sprained knee. It happened when he planted his left foot and his Nike sneaker literally fell apart, causing Williamson to fall backwards, with his right foot and knee twisting awkwardly as he did so. Former President Barack Obama, watching the game from just behind the Duke bench, could be seen pointing and uttering an astonished “his shoe broke!”

The stunning loss of Williamson dealt a severe blow to Mike Krzyzewski’s team. Duke was a nine-point favorite, but never once led the contest, as UNC pulled away to a double-digit win, 88-72. But the bigger story than the outcome of one regular season game was the widespread reaction to Williamson’s injury, with many pundits and several current and former NBA players arguing that he should not play so much as another minute for the Blue Devils. The logic of these arguments is that the player who is already known to most fans simply by his distinctive first name is the consensus choice as the number one pick in this summer’s NBA Draft. He thus stands, late in his one-and-done freshman college season, on the brink of an enormous payday. Why, these critics argue, should Zion put all that money at risk by chancing further injury in pursuit of a collegiate national title that would earn him nothing more than the love and admiration of Duke fans?

The obvious response goes something like, because that’s what he signed up for. Williamson made a commitment to play for Duke, even as he, Krzyzewski, and every one of the Cameron Crazies knew full well it would only be for a single season, and that the quaint concepts of student-athletes and high graduate rates are, well, quaint. The risk of injury has now turned into reality, albeit apparently and happily a relatively minor one. But that risk was there from the first practice session that Krzyzewski and his assistants whistled to begin last fall, and right through every game that the Blue Devils have played. The idea that Zion should now renege on his commitment, right at the most important time of the season for an elite program like Duke, that perennially contends for the national title, is noxious.

The good news is that from all reports Williamson wants to play and will be back in the starting lineup as soon as he is able. He traveled with the team to Syracuse this weekend, where the Blue Devils proved they could win a game without their leading man, as they pulled away late against the Orange, 75-65.

But the discussion about Zion Williamson’s future does raise two legitimate points. The first is that the NBA’s rule that players are eligible for the league’s draft only once they are nineteen and one year removed from high school has done nothing but encourage corruption at the collegiate level of the sport. Programs around the country have been tempted to bend recruiting rules to the breaking point to attract the most talented high school seniors, knowing that these kids would play but for a single season. In a fortuitous coincidence of timing, the morning after Williamson’s injury NBA commissioner Adam Silver announced the league was moving to end one-and-done.

The second and ultimately more important question is the ongoing debate about amateurism in big-time college sports. Williamson is virtually certain to get his massive payday come June, and deservedly so. But when he went down on Wednesday night the game between Duke and UNC continued. ESPN garnered record ratings for the contest. The two teams competing on the court both receive massive annual payments from shoe companies to outfit their players, payments the companies firmly believe are worth every penny – though Wednesday’s events probably cheered Adidas and New Balance far more than Nike. But the players, including all of Zion’s teammates, most of whom will never sign an NBA contract, are prohibited from sharing in all that wealth. Now there is something for the talking heads to talk about.

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