Zion’s rise exposes injustice of big-business NCAA sports

Duke University Head Men’s Basketball Coach Mike Krzyzewski draws up a play for his team. Krzyzewski makes $9 million a year while his players go uncompensated. Football and basketball coaches are the highest-paid public employees in 39 states. Courtesy of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff via Flickr.

A Play

When the University of Virginia’s DeAndre Hunter caught a pass from teammate Jay Huff, the nearest Duke defender was approximately 20 feet away…

The 6’7” Hunter, undoubtedly a lottery pick and a 47 percent shooter from threepoint range, set himself for three. He would surely get his shot away, and as open as he was, he would likely make it. It was a patented Virginia play, showcasing the kind of execution and selflessness that has made the Cavaliers a perennial powerhouse in college basketball. Hunter calmly raised the ball above his head and shot.

When the University of Virginia’s DeAndre Hunter caught a pass from teammate Jay Huff, the nearest Duke defender was approximately 20 feet away…

That Duke defender was Zion Williamson. Williamson had started the sequence covering the combo guard Kyle Guy on the left wing, but now realized that he would have to finish it in the right corner of the floor. The surefire number-one-overall pick in the upcoming NBA Draft, the 6’6” 290-pound Williamson took five stutter-ish steps before launching himself into the air. When he took off, he was noticeably closer to the paint than he was to the three-point line. When he landed, he was braced against the shoulders of an elderly duo in the front row of Virginia’s John Paul Jones Arena. The ball that DeAndre Hunter had shot was a few rows higher.

A School

George Washington Duke was born on Dec. 18, 1820 in Orange County, North Carolina. In Oct. 1863, with one known slave to his name, Caroline, Duke joined the Confederate navy. Twenty-seven years later, in 1890, his most lucrative business venture became the American Tobacco Company. At that time, the American Tobacco Company was the world’s largest tobacco manufacturer. In 1896, according to the historian Robert F. Durden, Duke donated $100,000 to what was then Trinity College on the grounds that it “open its doors to women, placing them on equal footing with men.” He died in 1905, and left the fortune he’d started growing in the antebellum South to his sons James and Benjamin (Robert F. Durden, “The Dukes of Durham,” 1987).

Nineteen years later Washington’s progeny committed $40,000,000 to higher education in North Carolina, through their newly formed Duke Endowment. Later that year Trinity College was renamed Duke University to honor the legacy of Washington Duke (Robert F. Durden, “The Dukes of Durham,” 1987). Eight years later, a statue of the Confederate General Robert E. Lee was erected in Duke Chapel. It stood there until Aug. 19, 2017 (NPR, “Duke University Removes Robert E. Lee Statue from Chapel Entrance, 08.19.2017).

A Coach

Mike Krzyzewski—at some points an outspoken supporter of all things Republican and at many others a politically silent, sports-only god of amateur athletics—unceremoniously became Duke University’s head basketball coach in 1980. He now rakes in about $9 million in salary annually (USA Today, “The 5 Highest-Paid Coaches in College Basketball,” 03.1.2018).

In 39 of 50 states, a football coach (31 states) or a basketball coach (eight states) is the highest-paid public employee (ESPN, “Who’s the Highest-Paid Person in Your State?” 03.20.2018). Of those amateur-labor magnates, Krzyzewski is the second-highest paid behind only Nick Saban. Further, according to Alabama Local News, of the 40 state employees whose salary pays them over $1 million, 39 (the magic number!) are college coaches (al.com, “Nick Saban is Country’s Highest-Paid Public Employee. Who is No. 2?” 01.20.2018).

A Problem?

For a true believer in the merit-rewarding, moral value of markets (full disclosure: not me!), there is a justification for these extraordinary salaries. Take, for example, the fact that the cheapest day-of ticket available for the Duke versus University of North Carolina matchup at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Feb. 20 was $2,500. That’s not a typo (ESPN, “UNC-Duke Tickets Approaching Super Bowl Prices Because of Zion Williamson,” 2.20.2019).

Barack Obama sat courtside in a stunningly fresh Rag & Bone bomber. (Side note: people were really, unironically referring to this jacket as the “OBomber.” Classic, classic comedy.) The faces of Spike Lee and Ken Griffey Jr. flashed across the TV screen as tip-off neared. To get a commercial played on ESPN at the breaks of this massive game cost millions. The campus was buzzing, the city was buzzing, the state was buzzing and the entire sports universe was buzzing.

If Krzyzewski is the main person responsible for warranting that price tag and this environment, then so be his $9 million salary. If you’re a true believer, you know that money and education can solve all problems in neoliberal societies. Thus, an elite institution of higher education—an institution that has cultured the minds of Paul Farmer, Richard Nixon, Tim Cook, Melinda Gates, Adam Silver, Kyrie Irving and Mike Posner—is the best remedy to societal ills. The leaders of tomorrow are educated at places like Duke, and tomorrow is always so, so bright.

But even with this calculus in mind, even with the belief that wealth creation and our current system of higher education are inherently good things, what is going on at Duke, and college sports more generally, is absurd. Because Zion Williamson was the person most responsible for the $2,500 price tag and the laundry list of celebrities in attendance. And Zion Williamson did not see a dime of the pot of gold at the end of the UNC-Duke rainbow.

Duke first-year Zion Williamson has quickly made himself must-see-TV thanks to his eye-catching numbers and athletic ability, shown off on this dunk against Hartford earlier this season. Williamson is considered the likely top-overall pick in the coming NBA Draft. Courtesy of keenanhairston via Flickr.

A Problem.

Instead of receiving money for his labor, Zion Williamson is supposed to revel in the glory of competition, in the college experience, in earning his stripes before roaring into the NBA.

Williamson, more than anyone, is supposed to not worry about the money he should be making in college, because he is about to be rolling in more dough than the Pillsbury boy. Perhaps an $80 million shoe deal will come his way, to go along with his $40-plus million dollar rookie contract. He’ll surely have endorsements piling up. But that does not justify the current vicious exploitation of his labor, because to justify such labor is to perpetuate a system so archaic that the likes of University of Houston professor Billy Hawkins refer to many venues of Division I sports as “The New Plantation” (Billy Hawkins, “The New Plantation: Black Athletes, College Sports, and Predominantly White NCAA Institutions,” 2010).

To my mind, Zion Williamson is the best NBA prospect since Anthony Davis. For a player less gifted and less physically-imposing than the Duke star, a fall like the one he took when his sneaker malfunctioned against UNC 30 seconds into the game might be the end of a career.

He, his teammates and the players on UNC are the only people involved in this event who are supposed to accept such precarious terms. They’re supposed to do so because they get to play this game, for fun, and they should be grateful for it. The situation begs the question, however (and I’ll leave it as a question): Why isn’t the same true for Mike Krzyzewski? And what does it say about how far we’ve come that a school built on the backs of unpaid black labor now profits from the very same thing?

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