Zion Williamson’s shoe exploded last Wednesday night against UNC injuring his knee and sparking a conversation in the hot-take universe. “Should Zion sit out the rest of the year?” will be debated for the next month or so, but if the conversation continues after the Final Four, it could lead to the end amateurism as we know it
The Shut it Down side of the argument says, “He’s already proven he should be the #1 pick in the draft, if he does get hurt he could lose out on a lot of money.” The keep playing side says some combination of, “He should play because it’s the right thing to do, he won’t ever get this chance again, he owes it to his teammates, and it’ll make him a better player.”
Wherever you stand on this argument, sports media and fans are widely acknowledging that Zion has a huge payday waiting for him. Other than pride, loyalty to teammates, and his own personal satisfaction he doesn’t have much else to play for. Now, pride and love of teammates are great reasons to play, but the aren’t the same reasons the NCAA’s accountants want him to play. Zion doesn’t get a cut of ticket sales, his scholarship doesn’t increase if he scores more points, and Duke doesn’t let other people pay him. He can only indirectly make money from playing another game for Duke; he has nothing at stake financially.
The people making money off Zion’s play are in the exact opposite position. The NCAA depends on the Tournament like the Government depends on Tax Day. The NCAA, on its own website, shows how much it needs the money produced by the Tournament TV deal. They made about $900 million last year. That TV money and March Madness ticket sales are about 90% of the Association’s annual revenue. The tournament pays for almost everything else the NCAA does. The players haven’t realized it yet, but this incongruity between what they have at stake and what the NCAA has at stake during the tournament gives the players an enormous amount of leverage.
Every year College Basketball becomes more and more commercialized. Assuming the trend continues, schools will have an increasing amount of trouble convincing talented young athletes to risk injury, and to possibly lose money down the road, to play in games that they have no financial stake in. How profitable would the NCAA have to become before something snaps? There has to be some limit to how much the NCAA and schools can make before the players demand a cut.
With that in mind, let’s go down a hypothetical rabbit hole. What would happen if it not only Zion decided to shut it down, but if all of his other NBA bound teammates, RJ Barret, Cam Reddish, and Tre Jones joined him? It would suck for Duke fans, but it probably wouldn’t ruin the whole tournament. What if other potential lottery picks did the same thing? Football players skipping bowl games has become normal. Again, people would still tune in, but more fans would be pissed. What happens if this behavior keeps spreading? How far could it go? What if every player on every tournament eligible team decided to ‘shut it down’ right before the Tournament started? By that I mean a widespread agreement between players that they will not play in the NCAA Tournament, or a strike.
Let’s set aside, if or how this could happen for a second, and first just look at what the consequences would be for the NCAA, and for the players if this did happen.
If some Tournament games, or the entire event did get cancelled because of players not showing up, the consequences would be catastrophic for the NCAA. The hundreds of millions it distributes to schools, the programs and scholarships it funds, the millions it pays in legal fees, all of that would dry up if the Tournament were cancelled. The NCAA has event insurance which might offset some of the loss, and it’s unclear how a cancellation would get handled in their contract with CBS & Turner, but it’s safe to assume a missed tournament would decimate the NCAA’s finances. The damage from one year’s strike wouldn’t just hurt their finances that year either. When Major League Baseball had a strike that cancelled the World Series it was years before fan attendance was back to pre-strike levels. A strike could hurt NCAA ad revenue for a decade.
Also, the players wouldn’t have to strike for very long. If games didn’t happen the days they were scheduled to happen the NCAA could try to postpone and reschedule, but that would be a logistical mess and might not even be possible. These games are big events, and the venues they happen in have other things going on. In other industries, some owners can withstand months worth of labor stoppage. The NCAA’s ability to withstand a strike is exactly two days: the first Thursday and Friday of the Tournament.
On top of that, if the Tournament was cancelled the public would be furious! Imagine the freak out from the 100 million viewers who watch March Madness every year. It would be like cancelling the Super Bowl, if the Super Bowl happened 4 days a week for a month!
If the millions in dispersals the NCAA pays out every year to member schools suddenly went away, how would the schools react? I think it’s fair to say the schools wouldn’t just sit back and risk letting it happen again. They would have to do something to avoid another financial and public relations hit a year later.
The NCAA absolutely needs the tournament to happen every single March or it could become insolvent. If they did, it would be unfortunate, because there are some good things the NCAA does, but perpetuating the myth of amateurism is not one of them. Joe Nocera, Taylor Branch and many others have already gone into great detail about the unfairness of amateurism. But even ignoring all that work, here’s a simple test of if amateurism is a good idea: Good ideas normally have advocates who try to make them more widespread, but you don’t hear anyone arguing for amateurism to be more widespread in our society. . . Do you want to have amateur status at your job?
In the absence of a powerful NCAA some schools might try to keep amateurism alive, but the big, profitable schools would have no reason to. Some of them are already pining to pay players. And, The NCAA is currently fighting several legal battles to keep amateurism alive. Any other organization that came after them to try to carry on their legacy might have to pony up millions of dollars just to pay their lawyers. There doesn’t appear to be any other organizations out there who willing to do that. The NCAA is fighting keep amateurism alive now, but if they can’t pay their bills, there would be nobody left to fight for amateurism.
What would the consequences be for striking players? I want to reiterate, in this hypothetical I’m talking about a work stoppage that happens after the regular season and conference championships have finished. How would it go down? Well, right off the bat Zion and the other NBA bound players would not be affected at all. They would hire agents and get on with their careers. What about the rest of the players who have marginal NBA prospects and are trying to earn their degrees? Schools might kick them off the teams and take away their scholarships, but if the players are a little bit sly, they could use the NCAA’s own hypocrisy against them.
The “NCAA Division I Manual” states very clearly, that the young men playing these games are STUDENTS FIRST, and athletes second. Bylaw 2.9 reads, “Student-athletes shall be amateurs in an intercollegiate sport, and their participation should be motivated primarily by education and by the physical, mental and social benefits to be derived.” Its hard to read that and come to any conclusion other than, by rule, academics is the first priority for all student athletes. Those rules make sense for gymnasts, rowers, soccer players, and other student athletes in non-revenue generating sports, but as far as big time D1 basketball and football players go these rules are disingenuous at best, and oppressive at worst. But the striking players could use the rules as a shield to protect themselves from any NCAA retribution. Here’s how it would work: On selection Sunday, when the bracket for the NCAA tournament is set, the players on the teams selected could say, “Sorry Coach, I’d like to play in the Tournament next weekend, but I have to study. If the rules were different, and I was getting paid, then they I could play but sorry, according to your rules, I should be studying.”
The NCAA and the schools would have to bend over backwards to justify forcing their STUDENT-athletes to play instead of studying. Could you imagine a school taking the position that, “Our students, who we force to prioritize school, should not be studying.” And, if the schools threatened to revoke scholarships of players who had to ‘study this weekend instead of playing’ it would make the schools extremely vulnerable to a class action lawsuit from the players. Would any schools take that risk? Maybe, but that would take a public relations nightmare and make it worse. The NCAA and their members would be helpless and have no recourse if the players used a ‘study strike’ tactic.
There have only been a few attempted strikes in the past, but the conditions now make it much more likely to succeed. The biggest difference now is social media. Players would be able to organize a strike much more easily now than they would have been years ago. It’s not hard to imagine a hashtag like #stopthemadness spreading among current and former players and becoming a rallying cry similar to #metoo. Some fans might join in too, which brings up the next point; public opinion has shifted.
The closest thing to an NCAA strike was in 2001 when Shane Battier tried to organize the Student Basketball Council to work for players’ rights, but they didn’t get anywhere. We’re in an era now where social justice and equality have become much bigger issues than ever before. Lots of fans would be upset and send all kinds of twitter hate at striking players, but not as many as in the past. For what it’s worth, right after the Zion injury happened Darren Rovell posted a poll on twitter asking if Zion should sit out for the rest of the year. The result was, 63% of the 27,000 respondents said he should. Now, that’s incredibly unscientific, but if it does map onto reality at all, we may be at a tipping point. Maybe now fans understand the economics of big time College Athletics enough that a significant portion of them would side with the players over the schools.
Also, there’s the online social justice mob, who harass big companies all the time on the behalf of marginalized people. If they got behind the players’ cause it could sway the fight like that ghost army from the third Lord of the Rings movie. ‘Woke’ culture hasn’t spoken out in a big way yet about the under-compensation of the, mostly black young men, who are being taken advantage of in the Tournament. If a lot of, or even a big chunk of the supporters of Colin Kaepernick jumped into this fight it could get ugly for the NCAA really quickly. Imagine the pressure that would be put on Tournament sponsors to treat players fairly.
On top of all that, the best American basketball players all know each other now from playing against each other in AAUs and other youth tournaments. With the players being already acquainted, it’d be much easier to united them now than it was in the past when they didn’t know all of their competitors.
Coaches too would be in a tough spot. If they were to take a stand against striking players, they would risk losing out on future top recruits. Are the coaches united enough to stand up against this? John Calipari already said that the NCAA right now is like the Soviet Union right before its collapse. They’ve been fighting the NCAA for years too. Jerry Tarkanian’s career was ruined by the NCAA, Rick Pitino was just taken down because of NCAA violations, and there have been countless other coaches fired because of NCAA rules violations. It’s hard to believe all coaches would come out together and condemn a strike. And, if some coaches come out in support of a strike, it increases the risk for for those who don’t.
For all of the reasons I just listed, the possibility of a player strike happening is higher now than it’s ever been, except for one thing that happened last week as well. The NBA came out and said they’ll probably remove their age restriction, allowing players to jump right from High School to College. That will take some pressure off the NCAA because superstars like Zion won’t have spend a few months in College anymore, but it also means the NBA will steal their best potential players. And, competitors are coming at the NCAA from all directions. If they paid players though, they could compete against the NBA for talent, and fend off upstart leagues.
Any significant strike, or even a serious threat of a strike would force the NCAA to change. To ensure that a tournament happened the year after a shutdown the NCAA, and schools would have to crack, and make some concessions in terms paying, or at least letting players get paid. But how would it work? In fact, there are people who argue for keeping the amateurism status quo, because, “if we paid players it would be chaos.”
It’s unclear exactly what would happen to College sports if the amateurism rules crack, but there are ideas. A great solution for all parties concerned was proposed by former University of Michigan President Jim Duderstadt. He thought schools should spin off revenue generating teams into businesses, owned by the schools, and let them pay the players as employees. If an athlete wanted to accept some of his payment in the form of a scholarship, that would be his choice, but he would have the right to negotiate with the team about his compensation just like every other American worker.
It would be very complicated to set up, and could take years to work out, but if the Duderstadt model were adopted it could work for everyone. Schools could still make money and get the prestige associated with athletic success, players would earn their fair market value, and fans would get a better on court product. The NCAA could probably even survive, but it might have to get split into parts that run tournaments for paid players, and then the rest of the amateur work it already does. The would be downsides and complications for sure. Would there be a salary cap? How long should contracts be? There are hundreds of questions you could ask but details of the Duderstadt model are too complicated to lay out here. The point is, if the sides were able to negotiate, something could be worked out to the satisfaction of all concerned parties. We trust in the principles of free market capitalism to work out complicated issues like this all the time. All of Western civilization is based on the idea that parties in negotiation can come to a mutually acceptable arrangement. Why should basketball be any different?
The NCAA tournament is an enormous creation, but it has a huge structural weakness that if exploited by a few rebels could blow up the entire thing. It’s a lot like Star Wars, right? The chain reaction from a tournament strike would be, once the basketball players break through, there is no justification for not paying football players either. Before you know it, the whole mirage of amateurism, which has been fading bit by bit for the past few years, would start to disappear.
Whether Zion sits out or not, his injury and the conversation going with it is a milestone on the road to the end of amateurism. It shows that people are changing their minds, and coming to appreciate the disparity between what the players are providing to the schools and what the schools give them in return. The sports world has changed too, and it is a much more dangerous place for organizations that systematically short change groups.The NCAA has all their eggs in the tournament basket and the players have very little reason to not tip that basket. Maybe one of the pending lawsuits against the NCAA will bring down amateurism before a player strike happens. But if the “sit out” conversation continues, soon, “One Shining Moment” will be played for a team of employees, not student athletes.