Zion Williamson’s injury reignites the debate on paying college athletes

Image source: USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday’s college basketball matchup between Duke and North Carolina was the most hyped regular season matchup in my lifetime, and arguably the most hyped regular season matchup in the history of College Hoops. Tickets were at Superbowl level prices, and littered throughout the crowd was a veritable “who’s who” of American celebrities.

As a hoops addict, I can see why this game had so much hype. Duke has 3 top prospects, headlined by once-in-a-generation athlete Zion Williamson. North Carolina is arguably the most successful school in college hoops history and are currently a powerful outfit in their own right. On paper, the matchup had all the right ingredients to justify it being the money-making juggernaut that it was.

Despite ticket prices being astronomically high for both, there’s one fundamental difference between the Superbowl and the Duke vs North Carolina game that took place: The winning players of the Superbowl receive $112,000, while their opponents receive $56,000. Meanwhile, the players on the Duke and North Carolina rosters receive a combined total of $0.

Yes, that’s right. A game consisting entirely of student-athletes has ticket prices rivaling the greatest sporting spectacle in America, yet the players do not see a single cent of the profits.

For those readers who aren’t familiar with NCAA rules, players may not profit off their image, cannot accept sponsorship money and cannot be paid.The NBA draft rules also state that players must be at least 19 years of age during the calendar year of the draft, and a player who completed basketball eligibility at an American high school must also be at least one year removed from the graduation of his high school class.

This creates an interesting catch 22 for prospects like Zion Williamson, who would likely have skipped college and gone straight to the draft if the rules permitted it. The options for an elite young prospect are:

1. Go to college for a year before being drafted, OR

2. Spend some time in Europe before declaring for the draft.

Zion chose college, and has been dominant all year. However, the fact that he lasted all of 36 seconds in the marquee matchup highlights the massive risk these young college athletes take every time they step on the court.

Part of the reason this game brought in so much money was because of Zion. Flash sells and Zion has plenty of it, with gravity defying dunks and leaping ability not seen for a long time. Even the most casual basketball fan can appreciate the rare gifts that Zion brings to the table. Yet despite the millions of dollars that Zion has brought to the program, he doesn’t have a shoe deal, can’t profit off his image, and can’t get paid by the NCAA, Duke or anyone else. Sure, he has a free education, but when you factor in the money he brings to a program vs the cost of a free education, it’s clear that Duke come out winners.

What happens to Zion’s future if his knee injury was serious and he blew it out? Depending on the severity, it’s likely he makes it to the NBA anyway, after all he is a generational talent. However, it might cost him a future endorsement, it might cost him a lot of guaranteed money due to a fall in the draft, and it might rob him of athleticism (which impacts the money he can make down the line). College athletes are more athlete then the NCAA are willing to admit, and yet for even sure things like Zion, one freak injury can be the difference between being set for life and struggling for money.

At the very least, players should be able to profit off their own image while they’re still students. Life has no certainties aside from death and the Knicks sucking, so why not allow the best of the best to market themselves and make money while they can? The cynic in me says that the reason students aren’t allowed to do that is because individual athlete sponsorships would interfere with team-wide sponsorships, which happen to be a big source of revenue for colleges.

The obvious solution would be to just pay the students. I can’t imagine having the athletic schedule of a professional athlete combined with the rigours of being a full time student. However, a good friend of mine made this counter argument: college basketball and football revenue accounts for roughly 90% of the money made by sports programs, so by paying the student athletes, this would severely weaken the funding that the less popular sports or programs make.

When I opened this question up to my social media for discussion, I came across two very popular suggested changes.

“Let the players declare for the draft after high school. Then it’s entirely the players choice. If you’re good enough to get drafted out of high school then it’s not an issue. If you’re not then do a year or two in college getting ready” – Daniel Steer.

Apparently, this is a change that Adam Silver has officially proposed today , and in my opinion, it is the best solution to the problem. It allows the Zion Williamson’s of the world to go make money right away, while at the same time gives kids who either want the free education, or need a year or more to hone their game the option of playing college ball.

“Best way to fix this would be for the NBA to just boycott the college system and get all the top prospects who don’t want a college education playing G-League.

It’d be win win. Colleges would still make bank and have the monopoly for those who wanted an education. But at least this way there would be an alternative.” – Joshua Veneris.

This is a very interesting suggestion in my eyes. On the one hand, it makes the G-league a legitimately strong tier 2 league and a very good development league. The amount of revenue that it would bring in if elite prospects were playing in it would dwarf what it currently brings in now, and this could be reflected in player salaries. On the other hand, I feel like both die-hard college sports fans and the college’s themselves would be vehemently opposed to this. The newfound revenue made by the G-league would have to come from somewhere, and in this case, it would be coming directly from the schools.

Regardless of what route the NBA decides to take, one thing is certain: something needs to change with the way the system is currently set up. It’s unfair that young athletes are forced to go overseas just to make the money that they deserve. In my opinion, it’s sad that it had to take a phenom’s injury to even spark this discussion again.

Agree or disagree with the above solutions? Have one of your own? Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments below.