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Trouble afoot: Duke’s ‘Shoe-gate’ highlights current controversies in college basketball

Bob Wallace, Jr. March 5, 2019

By now, most collegiate sports fans are likely well-versed in the commentary surrounding Zion Williamson’s injury during the highly anticipated February 20th game between the University of North Carolina and Duke. With the give of the glue on his left shoe, Williamson set off a firestorm of discussion around a “one and done” system that put his lucrative pro career in jeopardy so he could take the court for a university that may never hand him a diploma. 

It just so happens that we tackled this exact topic during a recent program presented for our Higher Education practice. 

Entitled “The Road From The Final Four,” the webinar took an in-depth look at NCAA college basketball after the FBI indictments of several assistant college coaches, shoe company executives, and advisors, and the reaction to those arrests by the NCAA and the college basketball community. During part of the presentation, my colleague, Katie Wendel, and I discussed the big UNC-Duke game occurring that same night. Little did we know then that less than one minute into this highly anticipated broadcast of one of the most heated rivalries in sports — and a marquee primetime program on ESPN — Williamson would fall to the floor with a knee injury. 

What made this injury so remarkable was its apparent cause. As the announcers excitedly exclaimed, his Nike sneaker simply “exploded” at the seams, causing Williamson to slip as his legs split apart. Prior to tip-off, fans, including the Cameron Crazies (Duke’s famously raucous student section), were in a complete frenzy, but they fell silent as Williamson first lay on the floor clutching his knee, and later gingerly walked to the locker room, toting the busted sneaker in one hand. The electricity in the stands was gone. North Carolina, which was ranked 12th in the national polls, cruised to victory over No. 1 Duke, which had to play without its prized freshman star. 

I describe this moment in detail because it perfectly illustrates the problematic intersection of players, coaches, television and shoe companies, and why additional discussion and action may be needed to adequately reform a system that, according to the NCAA, is not working to the benefit of those affected.

The Rice Commission and the NCAA looked squarely at this system in making and adopting certain recommendations. They put a spotlight on the vast amount of money involved in that system, and stressed that college basketball may be forgetting that its “basic purpose” is “to maintain intercollegiate athletics as an integral part of the educational program and the athlete as an integral part of the student body.” 

In theory, yes, universities should be keeping the “college” in college athletics. But in reality, we are faced with a game like UNC-Duke — a match-up with NBA-level hype that demonstrates the serious conflict between big dollar sports and higher education. The 9 p.m. weeknight game was attended by former President Obama. Tickets on the secondary market were selling in excess of $2,000. This was a big sports spectacle with college athletes at its very center. It seems unlikely that any of the players under that intense media glare were focused on the next day’s biology exam. And other than the athletic scholarship, including the new cost of attendance provisions, the players were receiving no compensation. In contrast, last year Duke Coach Krzyzewski made close to $9.0 million, and UNC Coach Williams earned almost $3.0 million.

In the wake of Williamson’s injury, sports commentators spent endless hours discussing whether Williamson was a victim of the “one and done” system that forced him to go to college instead of allowing him to immediately sign with the NBA. Additional discussion centered on Nike’s liability and responsibility for the injury, and if Duke and Coach K bore some responsibility as Williamson had no choice in what shoes he could wear while playing for Duke. 

Furthermore, everyone had an opinion on whether Williamson should sit out for the rest of the season or risk an injury that, if serious, could affect his future earning potential in the professional ranks. The NCAA now, however, allows players, with institutional assistance, to purchase insurance against injury up to $30 million, a result of recent reform to better protect an elite athlete while he plays for free.

What’s interesting and noteworthy, however, is that in all the dialogue, Williamson’s collegiate educational experience was never discussed. He was a “one and done” athlete-student (notice the switch in terminology; Williamson was primarily an athlete, not a student); there was likely never any intention that he would matriculate towards a degree from Duke; or at least not anytime soon. The NBA and the NBPA have a rule protecting current members over future members by limiting the employee pool. With great assistance from the professional NBA, the collegiate sport apparatus’ only result was to delay Williamson from being rewarded for his skills on the professional level. Through Williamson’s athletic prowess, Duke was able to continue as a dominant force in college basketball and with Coach K as its most successful coach. Nike continued to sponsor a marquee university program with the player wearing its product, and only one of those two entities receives compensation.

This game did make you think. It made you realize that reforms cannot come quickly enough. Fortunately, it looks like Williamson’s injury is not serious, and Nike will address the flaw in the shoe, but what would the ramifications be if the injury was serious, and Williamson’s career was derailed? I, for one, hate to think about it, and hope this warning makes those with the power to make changes do so immediately.

Bob Wallace is the chair of Thompson Coburn’s Sports Law Group.