The NCAA has become the latest example of the phrase, “it be your own people.”
Because while most folks are looking at the development of the G League and playing overseas as options that could forever change the sport of college basketball, the actual cause could be the NCAA itself.
Zion Williamson, college basketball’s most recent savior, is in the middle of a nasty legal battle that alleges he received “improper benefits,” which is a no-no since he was an “amateur” at Duke.
“Let’s say there is that kid who grew up on college basketball and wants to play. Now, it’s like why bother? Why jump through all these hoops and restrictions?” college basketball writer C.L. Brown told Deadspin.
“This is an unnecessary headache.”
The funny thing is, Williamson was that kid. And when it was time for him to declare for the NBA Draft, he waited until the very last minute to do so, because he liked being in college that much.
“It was like the deadline,” Williamson explained on the J.J. Redick Podcast. “Me? I wanted to go back. Nobody ever believes me. They think I’m just saying that, but no, I genuinely wanted to go back. I felt like the NBA wasn’t going anywhere. The money thing — that’s money. I don’t play this for money. I play because I genuinely love the game. I just loved my experience at Duke that much. I wanted to stay.”
The best thing that’s happened to college basketball in decades wanted to stick around, and a year later he’s dealing with the legal system due to the archaic rules of an organization that refuses to compensate the “student-athletes” that are the reason why a “non-profit” like the NCAA has been generating over a billion dollars annually since 2016-2017.
Williamson’s former marketing representative has asked him to admit that his mother and stepfather demanded, and received, money, gifts, and other benefits from Nike and Adidas to influence him to sign with Duke or either shoe company.
A 19-year-old is being forced to choose if he’ll keep his mouth closed or snitch on his family because he couldn’t receive anywhere near his true worth “above the table” due to his status as a student-athlete, while everyone else made millions off of him and his likeness.
“When this stuff came out, most people were like ‘If Zion got paid, whatever it was, wasn’t enough,’” said Brown. “People as a whole are even past these draconian NCAA fake amateur rules. Let’s stop pretending this is an amateur operation when this is professional sports in the guise of college basketball.”
And while the NCAA has agreed to allow student-athletes to make money off their likeness, the rule isn’t very transparent, as the organization is doing everything it can to limit just how much players can make.
“I don’t agree that the NCAA has made any real progress on the Name, Image, Likeness (NIL) issue,” sports attorney Tammi Gaw told Deadspin. “Their recent announcement was, one, a smokescreen to make it look like they were doing something. Two, a public relations effort aimed at slowing down individual state bills/laws regulating NIL. And three, an outright call for help to the federal legislators to give the NCAA the antitrust exemption they have wanted for years.
The NCAA knows that college athletes aren’t like other students, “but they keep acting like they are to keep the money train on track,” said Gaw.
“People should not confuse the findings from the committee to be a victory in the fight for college athletes’ economic rights,” she said.
Before the coronavirus, it was believed that the one-and-done rule would end in 2022, as the 2005 NBA Draft was the last time that high school players were able to go straight to the pros. And if change does take place in two years, it lends itself to another example of why some feel like things could take a turn for the worse for college basketball.
“It’s a confluence of a lot of different actions, including the NIL movement, the decreasing popularity of college basketball outside of the NCAA tournament, and the fallout of the Christian Dawkins trial,” Gaw explained.
“New programs like the Professional Collegiate League are going to offer an alternative for kids who want to get paid to play and get an education. Combine that with college sports cancellations from COVID, and I don’t think we can even conceive of how different the sports landscape will look in 12-18 months.”
But despite all the options top prospects could have in the future, there still may be a few who are like Williamson and will want to play college basketball. Before the one-and-done rule went into effect in 2005, guys like Corey Maggette, DaJuan Wagner, Eddie Griffin, Carmelo Anthony, Luol Deng, and Marvin Williams still chose to play a year in college when they didn’t have to. And while all of them had varying levels of success in college, they still transitioned from high school All-Americans to first-round draft picks.
College basketball and the NCAA have a product in March Madness that serves as a platform that has changed the lives and careers of players for decades, and that’s something the G League and playing overseas can’t duplicate. Because no matter how good those options might look in the future, they can’t compete with a sporting event that only pales in comparison to the Super Bowl, in terms of popularity and ratings.
It’ll be interesting to see how future top prospects will handle things, which is why top recruit Emoni Bates’ upcoming decision could determine so much. Last October, Bates became the youngest player to ever appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated, as the then-15-year-old beat LeBron James’ record by two years. Last month, he became the first sophomore to ever be named as the Gatorade National Player of the Year. He’s considered to be the greatest pro prospect since James.
With two years of high school left, Bates could graduate and become the No. 1 overall pick in 2022, and the first high school player to be taken at the top of the draft since Dwight Howard in 2004.
Or, he could graduate early and spend a year playing in college before he heads to the pros, as his father told the Detroit News back in January that such a move was “something to consider.”
During the summer, Bates plays for “Bates Fundamental,” which is sponsored by Nike and operated by his father. The irony of a teenage prospect that has college basketball, the NBA, and shoe companies drooling over him, just like they used to do over Zion Williamson, can’t be ignored.
Duke and college basketball helped Williamson just as much as he helped them. But since the NCAA and the sport refuses to evolve at an adequate rate in terms of player compensation, they will have no one to blame but themselves if the next Zion Williamson passes on college basketball, all because of what the first Zion Williamson is dealing with.