It was a perfectly diagrammed moment of what’s most fun — and most wrong — about college athletics: The best player in college basketball, in an arena full of people paying Super Bowl money he won’t see, on a national TV broadcast that brings in dollars to his school but not him, blows out a sneaker he has to wear to satisfy a contract that puts no cash in his pocket, and falls to the hardwood floor.
We don’t yet know how long Zion Williamson’s mild-knee sprain might keep him from playing for Duke University this season. But we do know enough after Wednesday night to say this:
Go pro, Zion. Not after this season. Now.
We all have our self-interest in sports, our bottom lines. The NCAA certainly does, as does Duke and its administrators. Duke fans, too, would certainly like to see Zion back on the floor to lead the Blue Devils through the NCAA tournament next month. The rest of us basketball fans would just love to see him more — the way we do with any special athlete.
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But when Williamson grabbed at his knee a half-minute into Wednesday’s game with North Carolina, he reminded us of one of the biggest inequities in college sports. The players who fill the arenas and make fans lift their TV remotes — they also are the ones that carry the most risk. One moment, one awkward step, one brutal tackle can change the trajectory of their careers and lives. It doesn’t happen often, but it happens enough.
It’s why we’ve begun seeing more elite college football players choose not to play in their school’s bowl games before they enter the NFL draft. It’s a sensible decision, and it’s always met with fans and others grumbling about honor and loyalty to team and sport. Some even try to make it transactional — that players owe their participation to a school that has offered them a free education. Zion, after all, made the decision to come to Duke. Shouldn’t he follow through on that commitment?
But with college football and basketball, that free ride is not an offer. It’s a requirement. Unlike other sports — and unlike other professions — the best football and basketball players are given an unsatisfactory choice about their years after high school. If they want to play football and basketball in this country, it’s the NCAA or ... pickup games at the Y? For many, college is the right and smart choice. For some, like Zion Williamson, it’s a forced path that brings significant risk and disproportionate benefit.
So go pro, Zion. Don’t risk re-injury. Sit out the rest of this college basketball season. Declare that the next 15 years of your career are more important than our next five or six weeks. Your teammates will be disappointed, yes, and surely your coach. But they’ll also understand, as should the rest of us. It’s your bottom line, not ours.