The Importance of Standing with Zion Williamson
By now, most of us are familiar with the early moments of last week’s UNC-Duke men’s basketball rivalry game, which saw Duke freshman sensation Zion Williamson go down with an exploded shoe and a buckled knee. It was a moment that froze Cameron Indoor Stadium and one that was met with a mixed bag of reactions from Tar Heels around the world, from silence to outright cheers. Since the moment the high school All-American forward hit the hardwood, the basketball world has been positively transfixed with what his next move will be. Many argue that he should sit out the season, resting on his sky-high projections to move up to the pros next year. Others implore that he should return as soon as he is healthy for the sake of future earnings. Amidst all of this conjecture, the personhood and humanity of an incredible young athlete has been lost. Williamson has worked all of his life to perfect a craft, to make a name for himself in the record books, and, crucially, to have the chance to actualize an earning potential that most can only ever dream of. The episode of Zion’s injury is the latest to shed light on a poisonous state of affairs in college athletics which we should all, Tar Heels included, condemn: the tendency of observers to commodify college students, and the shocking, continuing practice of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) to exploit the labour of young athletes with no semblance of a fair deal.
It’s no secret that the NCAA sets harsh restrictions for student-athlete eligibility. Most notably, it prevents athletes from accepting compensation for their talent both before and during their tenure in the NCAA, in order to maintain the tag of “amateurism.” All the while, though, the organization signs massive television deals which produce revenue for the NCAA governing body and participating universities. Moreover, sports networks use the likeness and work product of student-athletes in daily news and special programming, and schools themselves sell jerseys and memorabilia purchased by fans due to the excitement value that young athletes produce. The whole matrix of the NCAA generally acts as any other professional league - until it comes to fairly compensating its players.
Beyond this carelessness, though, lie the actively pernicious policies of the NCAA which rob student-athletes of protection. Colleges rarely have any legal binding to student-athletes and are often permitted to revoke scholarships as soon as they are no longer able to produce value for the university. A few of the top student athletes, like Williamson, can obtain opt-in insurance policies which promise payouts in the event of injury affecting their potential professional salary or, in the worst case, those which totally end the individual’s athletic career (little is known or disclosed publicly regarding these policies). Such a measure, though, is the exception rather than the rule.
This complex of collegiate athletics amounts to a gross exploitation of student-athlete labor and abilities, one that would be unconscionable in any other profession. NCAA policy leaves these teams - and the lives of the athletes who play on them - as profit and clout machines for universities and playthings for wealthy, powerful, and usually white boosters.
Some point out that many of these athletes receive free tuition, dieticians, the potential for a degree, exposure, and a host of other benefits that may materialize in the future, but the crime here lies precisely in the doubt: none of the benefits that the NCAA gives to its student-athletes can be taken to the bank. None of it is assured, liquid payment for their talent. None of it will help their families here and now, or be put away for the early retirement that most athletes have to take relative to other workers. Time spent in college by stars like Williamson is, under current policy, a black hole for earnings. One wrong move, or poorly stitched shoe, can render a life’s work moot before an elite athlete ever sees a modicum of secure revenue for their labor, even though in just a year’s work they can generate a great deal of it for others.
It is telling that, prior to the injury, Williamson and his family were dragged into an FBI investigation regarding college recruitment for the crime of, essentially, asking due compensation for his abilities. There is a stubborn resistance to treat student-athletes as what they are: extraordinary, revenue-generating sportspeople, and moreover a stubborn resistance to see them as humans worthy of autonomy and basic goodwill.
As long as this immoral matrix of college sport persists, all Tar Heels ought to cheer for Williamson’s speedy recovery and continued success. The Daily Tar Heel, among others, are wrong to suggest that there is some nobility in Zion “placing the needs of his team and university ahead of his own.” The NCAA, its constituent universities, and the teams who play under them have proven time and time again that they have no intent to reciprocate that good will. Neither Zion nor any other athlete owe the university or the fans anything. As this extraordinary young talent navigates this difficult time, it is upon us as people who exert social pressure to support his well-being as his superiors demonstrate that they do not. The Editorial Board wishes Zion a quick recovery and the capacity to make whatever decision feels right to him as it relates to the remainder of his college career.