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Zion Williamson’s Year in College Was Worth More Than He Got

Zion Williamson shouldn’t have to deal with this.

In case you missed it, Williamson, now one of the N.B.A.’s brightest young stars, had his name come up in a lawsuit pitting Brian Bowen, a former top college basketball recruit, against Adidas. The news was first reported by The Raleigh News & Observer and The Athletic this week.

Before Bowen could play a single college game, the N.C.A.A. stripped his eligibility after the F.B.I. began investigating a spate of under-the-table payments in college basketball over the past few years.

The F.B.I. found that an Adidas employee and others had schemed to pay Bowen’s father to steer him to Louisville, a school that collects $16 million a year for wearing the sporting goods giant’s gear. Bowen, who never played college basketball, now toils in the N.B.A.’s developmental league.

What’s that got to do with Williamson, you might ask?

Responding to queries from Bowen’s legal team seeking information about payments to college-bound recruits, an Adidas lawyer wrote in a court filing last month that the former head of the company’s grass-roots basketball program “may have transferred $3,000 per month to the Williamson family for an unspecified period of time.”

The papers also show Adidas reps doled out $5,474 to the junior circuit team for which Williamson starred, and his stepfather coached.

Under N.C.A.A. rules, such payments — if proved to have been meant to curry favor with Williamson so he would play for an Adidas-sponsored college team or sign with the shoe company once he turned pro — should have made Williamson ineligible to play in the 2018-19 season at Duke, which is sponsored by Nike.

“It’s nothing new,” said Sonny Vaccaro, when we spoke over the phone about Williamson this week. “This kind of thing has been going on forever.”

Vaccaro knows better than anyone. The former shoe company marketing czar signed Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant to their first mammoth sneaker endorsement deals and pioneered the industry’s sponsorship of teams and coaches. He turned against big-time college sports after watching it become a multibillion dollar behemoth where everyone kept getting richer but the players. Then he helped push for the lawsuit that set the former U.C.L.A. basketball star Ed O’Bannon against the N.C.A.A., a case that spurred the current clamor for reform of college sports.

“The players who make the whole thing work see everyone around them making tons of money,” Vaccaro added. “The coaches and athletic directors with their huge contracts. But when the players have tried to make life better for themselves financially, the N.C.A.A. has always stigmatized them.”

Note that this isn’t the first time Williamson has been accused of reaping a windfall before donning a Duke uniform, allegations which his lawyers and the university have denied.

What shocks about this latest news is not necessarily that it points again to the murky underworld of college sports. It’s that, if the claims in the Adidas case are true and the relatively paltry amounts mentioned are any guide, Zion Williamson got jobbed.

Vaccaro estimated that on the open market Williamson could have signed a shoe deal worth at least $2.5 million while still in high school — and likely for much higher.

How much money was Williamson worth simply to Duke’s basketball program as he helped lead the Blue Devils to an A.C.C. title?

“Right around $5 million,” said Professor David Berri, a sports economist at Southern Utah University who has devised a formula that uses a college team’s revenue and the estimated victories created by a player to gauge economic impact.

That doesn’t account for the buzz Williamson brought Duke.

Williamson arrived on campus already wrapped in fame. Weeks into his season, he had 2.2. million social media followers, more than many N.B.A. stars. His games became must-see viewing. Former President Barack Obama and the hip-hop impresario Jay-Z attended his prime-time, nationally televised games.

So let’s just say Williamson brought a marketing sizzle to Duke that was worth far more than the value of his scholarship.

As most who closely watch college sports know, change is in the air.

The Supreme Court will soon rule on a case that could poke a hole in the N.C.A.A. cartel and pry open the lid the organization puts on benefits its athletes can receive from schools.

Several states have passed laws that purportedly mandate changes in outdated restrictions that prohibit players from earning money through endorsements or, in today’s world of social media, through sponsored posts.

Congress has taken notice, too. It could come up with uniform rules that allow players to monetize their fame while pushing for more player rights.

But even if these changes come, there will be cracks in the system so long as the N.C.A.A. keeps restricting what should be a free-enterprise marketplace for its worker athletes. Shoe companies and agents, for instance, will keep trying to use cash and gifts to attach themselves to football and basketball’s biggest high school and collegiate stars.

There’s no stopping that. Why even try?

Why not admit the obvious? Big-time college sports, namely football and men’s basketball, are not amateur at all.

Reform allowing athletes to market themselves in college, still being sorted out, is an impressive start.

But why not bring every last bit of the industry out in the open?

Why not let schools compete for the best players through pay? (Just limit how many great athletes teams can bring in, so Alabama doesn’t hoard the top 300 high school recruits.)

Why not allow the top high school players to deal with shoe companies and agents and anyone they think can help them financially? No questions asked. No shame and vilification.

Let there be light. And more light. And more again.

The N.C.A.A. could shed the sham claim that it is guarding the holy grail of amateurism.

Coaches and colleges wouldn’t have to lie and say they do not know what goes on behind the scenes.

Young athletes like Williamson wouldn’t have to deal with having their names dragged through court cases for benefiting from their talent.

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