The Madness of College Hoops’ Amateurism

Duke Blue Devils forward Zion Williamson (1) shoots against Virginia Tech Hokies forward P.J. Horne (14) during an NCAA Tournament semifinal game at Capital One Arena in Washington, D.C., March 29, 2019. (Geoff Burke/USA TODAY Sports)
Schools and the NCAA earn many millions off student athletes. Why not pay them?

Appropriately, during the crescendo of this college basketball season, in which the most significant event was a shoe malfunction, a lawyer whose best-known client was a pornographic actress was indicted for threatening to shrink a shoe company’s market capitalization by making allegations about the company’s misbehaving in the meat market for a small number of tall “student-athletes.” What counts as misbehavior in this swamp is a murky subject.

Zion Williamson is a “one-and-done” superstar at Duke, a university (one can lose sight of this fact) that aspires to be worthy of its basketball program. There, Williamson is spending the obligatory year before becoming eligible to rake in riches in the NBA, which forbids its teams to sign players directly out of high school, thereby giving institutions of higher education a year to refine future NBA talent.

In a February game, one of Williamson’s Nike shoes blew apart under the torque of his 285 pounds. This injured him, not seriously but enough to furrow the brows of those who ponder the ethics of college athletics — in a sense, a small subject. They wondered: While Williamson is serving his one-year sentence as an unpaid student athlete, helping Duke and the National Collegiate Athletic Association make millions and more than a billion, respectively (he has 3 million followers on Instagram), an injury could ruin his prospects as a professional. So perhaps he should be a paid student athlete.

Nike pays Duke serious money, but not a penny — heaven forfend — to Williamson, to wear its stuff. (Duke, a private institution, can keep such transactions secret, but a comparable basketball factory, the University of Kentucky, recently extended its marriage to Nike for $30.6 million over eight years.) Williamson’s defective shoe briefly knocked $1.1 billion off Nike’s market capitalization. Michael Avenatti, former lawyer for Stormy Daniels, was apparently nine times more ambitious.

He was arrested after being recorded, according to the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, threatening to release — on the eve of March Madness and of a Nike earnings call — evidence that Nike has participated in a particular practice of sports-apparel companies (Adidas and Under Armour also supposedly compete). They sluice money, through third parties, to “blue chip” recruits, or their families, to steer players to schools that are paid to wear the companies’ goods. To lawyers for Nike, Avenatti said: “I’ll go take $10 billion dollars off your client’s market cap. . . . I’m not f***ing around.”

Recently three men were convicted of fraud and conspiracy for directing recruits to Adidas schools, on the amusing theory that the schools who welcomed these players had never noticed any of the money sloshing around and so were somehow victims. Pure as the driven slush. Louisiana State University reached the Sweet Sixteen in 2019’s March Madness without its coach, who was suspended by LSU after refusing to talk to the university about transcripts of colorful telephone conversations. The coach spoke about “a hell of a [expletive] offer” and “a [expletive] strong-ass offer” — to whom was unclear — concerning prospective recruits. Conceivably, the offers were not for NCAA-permitted benefits for the athlete.

The judge in another recent case compounded the comedy, ruling that although the NCAA has no “coherent definition of amateurism,” it can continue to sharply limit financial aid to athletes because the judge accepts the NCAA’s convenient theory about “the importance to consumer demand of maintaining a distinction between college sports and professional sports.”


About the importance of equity, Representative Mark Walker, a Republican from basketball-crazed North Carolina, has an idea: Tweak the tax code to say that “amateur sports organizations” cannot “substantially [restrict] the use of an athlete’s name, image, or likeness.” So the NCAA, epicenter of the college-sports industry, would forfeit its tax-exempt status — let’s not dwell on that absurdity — if it continues forbidding athletes from making money from their names.

An ordained minister, Walker understands mankind’s fallen nature, so he knows that rivers of money from boosters and others might flow to star players for, say, endorsing a local car dealership. A believer in redemption, perhaps Walker understands that improvement of the multibillion-dollar entertainment industry that is parasitic off educational institutions must begin by forcing it to confront its foundational hypocrisy about amateurism.

In 1957, Queen Elizabeth, attending a Maryland–North Carolina football game, asked Maryland’s governor, “Where do you get all those enormous players?” He replied, “Your majesty, that’s a very embarrassing question.” In college basketball, there are many such questions.

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