Zion Williamson twisted his knee in Durham, North Carolina, last week, and the world seemed to groan. Rarely has there been such a universal outpouring of concern and compassion for an 18-year-old African-American male.
When his Nike shoe exploded, marketing dreams shook as well.
Williamson’s injury — which occurred inside a packed arena that included former President Barack Obama, film director Spike Lee and someone who spent $10,000 for a ticket — reignited familiar arguments about the hypocrisy of highly commercialized college sports with multimillion-dollar coaches.
Williamson is listed as day-to-day, but his slip was a wake-up call and a reminder how of quickly things can change, especially for an athlete.
Like a host of Duke players before him, Williamson will leave the university this spring without the most valuable commodity the school has to offer: a Duke degree. Williamson may make millions and build castles, but he will likely never earn a Duke degree. What’s unfortunate is that Williamson could have ensured that a deserving member of his community did.
As a condition of his “employment” at Duke, Williamson could have insisted that a qualified high school student of his choosing, perhaps someone from his community, matriculate at Duke and receive a four-year education, unburdened by debt. In other words, the student whom Williamson and his family selected would have received the four-year education that Williamson will miss.
This act of altruism is likely to be scrutinized by the NCAA, which has strict rules and regulations around recruiting. But package deals are a fact of life In big-time intercollegiate athletics.
Top-tier athletes should use their talent to compel the institutions that recruit them to offer academic opportunity for deserving members of the athletes’ communities.
In integrating this demand into the recruitment process, elite high school athletes could create opportunities for African-American peers that would echo for generations. While the one-and-done players ride off to the pros, deserving students would receive the full ride.
In this new era of sports activism, athletes could use their leverage to effect change.
This is where the business-as-usual model must change, where young elite African-American players such as Williamson and their families must change the equation.
These elite athletes have more leverage than they and their parents realize and shouldn’t be afraid to use it. Get away from the mentality that the university is doing them a favor by allowing their child to work on a school’s sports plantation.
The one-and-done college basketball prodigy must serve as advocate because deserving young African-American academic performers often have a more difficult time being discovered.
“There is a platform for top-tier athletes,” said E. Courtney Scott, president and CEO of Kontent Incubator.
“If you are a good basketball player, you will be able to go to summer camps and you’re going to be found. When you come from an area that is underserved, the academic talent is not easily found because there is not a place to showcase it.”
Scott works closely with the family of Chicago Bulls rookie Wendell Carter Jr., who was a one-and-done last season at Duke, advising them on aspects of the business of sports.
The sports industry has perfected a system of mining athletic talent, finding, developing and distributing black gold throughout the Power 5 universe. This occurs largely with no accountability to the community from which the black gold is mined. This extends to middle- and upper-class black families who might feel obligated to share their good fortune with talented students from underserved communities.
If a Power 5 school pines for a Zion Williamson, it should be compelled by the elite athlete to take a student from their community who will stay the full four years at that school.
Journalists who specialize in recruiting write about elite athletes beginning when they are in the ninth grade. Williamson was a social media icon before he went to Duke.
”When it comes to a young student who excels in academics, that student probably is not going to get that shine unless you go to a prep school or private school,” Scott said. “If you’re super-duper smart and you go to school in an underserved area, you may or may not get that shine.”
The elite high school one-and-done player could make sure that student is recognized and gets pulled along.
What would have happened had James Wiseman, the 7-footer from Memphis who committed to the University of Memphis, insisted the university offer a scholarship to a deserving member of his community? What if Jaden McDaniels, the 6-foot-10 power forward from Federal Way, Washington, who is undecided, insists on the same condition?
“Even though the guy is going to be one-and-done, I think by having somebody who is from the community who is smart, the athlete will be able to have an accountability partner,” Scott said. “Someone who can say, ‘Hey, I know you’re only here for eight or nine months, but while you’re here, let’s make sure you stay focused and on task with your academics.’ ”
This arrangement differs from the traditional package deal where a high school coach is hired as a condition of a star player committing to the school. This is an academic package deal.
“I think it could be another way to add to the ecosystem and give back to the community,” Scott said.
A side issue that emerged in the wake of Williamson’s injury is whether he should heal and play during the ACC and NCAA tournaments or simply sit out the rest of the season.
Darius Garland, the talented freshman guard from Vanderbilt, suffered a season-ending knee injury, a torn meniscus, so he left the team to prepare for the NBA draft.
The elite college basketball player makes short-term decisions based on maximizing an athletic career. The student for which the elite athlete advocates during the recruitment process could make long-term academic decisions that involve staying at the university and taking advantage of all the university has to offer.
Williamson could have created a rich academic opportunity for someone in his community to attend Duke; at an early age, he could have created a legacy.
What leverage do these young athletes really have? Talent and the ability to help a program win. Schools like Duke and coaches like Mike Krzyzewski love success, love winning, love the money and power that are attached to winning.
Universities like success. The fans who dress up and paint their faces in school colors like success. If the price of successfully recruiting a game-changing athlete is agreeing to an academic package deal, the school will do it. But the athlete has to insist.
This is an early lesson in legacy.
An athlete’s dream can end in the blink of an eye: A shoe explodes, a leg is broken, a tendon is torn. Education lasts a lifetime.
This is new-age activism that extends the tradition of reaching back.